Morning Anxiety

24sunriseWe’re all familiar with the term “morning sickness”, yet few people discuss another common malady that affects many people: morning anxiety. My clients and ecourse members who are struggling with anxiety often describe waking up in the morning with knots in their stomach, unable to eat, dreading another day of facing their anxious mind. And the common question is: why? Why does anxiety seem to hit hardest first thing in the morning?

Mornings are the liminal hour, the vulnerable time between night and day when we’re in-between two states of consciousness: the unconscious, where dreams occur, and the conscious state of our daytime hours. A hallmark of the liminal zone is feeling vulnerable, out of control, disoriented, and uncertain. It’s when the bedrocks of our familiar lives fall away and we’re left floating around in the middle of the ocean without a compass or rudder.

Mornings are yin time, feminine consciousness where our normal defenses fall away and we’re offered a portal into the soul. Mornings are soft, fluid, and round. In a healthier mental state, this softness gives rise to creative and spiritual openings and is often when lines of poetry or a new idea bubble up from the dark, sacred world of psyche. The veils are lifted and we see things as they are.

When you’re in an anxious state, this means that you’re offered a window to see the anxiety without the normal distractions of your busy day. The message of anxiety which may bang on the doors of your mind during your loud, busy day now, in the quiet of morning, only has to tap lightly for you to listen. Since the habitual response to anxiety is to withdraw and run from it, the mainstream advice for morning anxiety is to get up and get moving. This is, of course, the same message that most people receive about all of their uncomfortable, “negative” feelings: get over it. Get up. Get moving. Exercise. Take a shower. Get going with your day.

I hold a different perspective on morning anxiety: Recognize that there’s a message to decode, find the courage to walk through the murky portal and explore the anxiety with curiosity. It can be scary, I know. You don’t know what you’ll find. You’re scared that the anxiety is here to confirm your deepest fears. But that’s never the case. Anxiety carries a message and it’s here to teach you something important about yourself. If you try to ignore it, it will only follow you throughout your day in the form of intrusive thoughts and the corresponding physical symptoms. Since you can’t escape it, you may as well embrace it.

That said, some people do find it helpful to get up, go for a run, take a shower, and then come back to explore the anxiety. With a clear body, they’re able to enter the anxious cave with some light and strength. One woman on the ecourse forum who struggled intensely with morning anxiety shared her routine, which started back in August 2012:

So my routine is this: I’m going to jump out of bed, into the shower… journal and then go for a 20-minute walk before work. Another girl who had severe anxiety on a separate issue did say that she found exercise first thing in the morning extremely helpful. Given it’s finally getting warm here in Australia I’m hoping some nature will help me.

I’m starting to get anxious now that this will become 10 times worse when I’m actually married and living with my husband but I’m not going to ‘not marry him’ because I have to deal with anxious thoughts. Again, they’re just thoughts. They mean nothing.

I’ll let you know how the new routine goes…

She got married in January 2013 and recently posted this update in response to a new member struggling with morning anxiety:

I can say as consolation that mornings are not at all like that for me. I don’t have those thoughts or feelings or balls of anxiety in the morning anymore. Instead, I wake up next to my husband and think, ‘I don’t want to go to work’. But that’s my next challenge.

Back in my pre-marriage, pre-children days, I would wake up every morning and write down my dreams. For as far back as I can remember, in fact, a journal has sat on my bedside table, and before the dream could take flight and become lost in the sea of my day, I would write. Sometimes the dreams disturbed me, and when I was enduring the seven year dark night of the soul in my twenties, the dreams were not dreams but nightmares. Still, I wrote. I wanted to know. I needed to understand. As scary as it was to re-live those nighttime terror, my curiosity and fascination with the inner world superseded the fear. My willingness to walk into that territory birthed my work in the world and helped shape the woman I am today. What will your exploration of the anxiety that manifests so strongly in the mornings birth for you?

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Forum quote printed with grateful permission to the forum member. 

30 comments to Morning Anxiety

  • hopeful

    Thank you, Sheryl! I just woke up thinking, ugh, I don’t want to get up because I know my anxiety will rev up. It helps to have a plan, or routine. 10 breaths help me. Reading and learning more about my anxiety makes it less daunting when I have an uncomfortable thought. Maybe a nice walk will help to add to my routine.

  • Marissa

    I love this post Sheryl! My anxiety is always worst in the morning. The best thing you really can do is get up and start your day. I find that as I get ready I can talk myself through the anxiety and the best thing for me is to get out the door and try to get through my day. It is getting easier, but while in the throes of it I always felt upset going to bed at night because I knew that horrible anxiety/depression would be there in full force in the morning. You think it will never end, but with journaling, therapy, and meditation it DOES GET EASIER. Thank you for this post, it is wonderful.

  • Sarah

    Interesting…I am remembering back to my engagement anxiety, and it was always so much more intense in the morning. By the evening I’d calmed down somewhat but every morning it would start over. I like what your client said about the “after marriage” state of things. Mornings are one of my favorite times now…my husband wakes me up and we snuggle awhile, eat breakfast, and then I have my alone time before starting my day.

  • Beth

    Sheryl, isn’t there also a physiological component to morning anxiety? In my research for my own anxiety, I’ve read that morning is when the body produces the most cortisol, creating that fight-or-flight feeling. I’ve also read that a way to help can be to wake to natural light or have a gentler waking than a blaring alarm clock–at least for myself, waking to soft music rather than that horrible insistent beeping has made a huge change in my morning anxiety levels.

    • Yes, Beth, that makes a lot of sense. I wonder if there’s also a hormonal element to morning anxiety, which would align with mornings being yin time, and when we honor the feminine nature of being (instead of doing doing doing), some of the anxiety dissipates. This is also consistent with your beautiful suggestion of waking up to calm, soft music instead of a beeping alarm. Again, the feminine versus the masculine! My sense is that we need to be gentle with ourselves in the morning, like a newborn baby.

  • Wow! Thank you for this post! It’s a relief to know I’m not alone in this whole morning anxiety thing. I noticed it kicked up again about a month ago when I decided to stop working toward something (anything!) and just be. Now that I know why it’s more prevalent in the morning time, I would love so ideas for diving into it and finding the message it’s here to give me.

  • Amy

    I find that my anxiety tends to be worse at nighttime! Perhaps sometime you can write a post about this Sheryl. I agree that sitting with the feelings and accepting them is definitely a necessity, but a scary one! It helps me to accept that negative feelings are a part of life, and that life is difficult. That makes me feel that the bad moments will pass. 🙂

    • I would say that the same principles of this article apply: night is also a time when the veils are lifted and we’re more susceptible to our inner world. And, as you’ve alluded to, it’s a time to move toward the feelings instead of trying to distract or escape from them.

  • Ellie

    Hi Sheryl,
    I am so thankful for the work you do in this area. Can you please explain more about this statement you made in the article: “You’re scared that the anxiety is here to confirm your deepest fears. But that’s never the case.” It’s reassuring to hear that the anxiety won’t confirm my deepest fears (for me, it’s making the wrong choice about marrying my fiance), but how do you know that? I need some more bravery in order to really explore the anxiety!

    • I know it because of the thousands of people who have come across my work I’ve never seen one person walk away from their relationship unless there was an obvious red-flag issue (addiction, abuse, irreconcilable misalignment of core values). Yes, it does require bravery to explore the anxiety!

  • In tantra there always exists an invitation to explore the yin state. Our modern world is very yang/masculine but in exploring and embracing our yin we drop down into the mud where the lotus has her roots and find new jewels and wisdom that allow us to fully blossom.

    Anxiety can be an invitation to explore and unrealised part of ourself and in doing so we become both the roots and the flower of the lotus.

    Gorgeous post!

    Much love,

    Catherine x x

  • Kat

    Yes, it is an opportunity to explore! For about a week I was having very bad morning anxiety there and it started getting me all worried about, ‘was this the start of me slipping back in depression?’ etc etc. but then, as I was standing in the shower I realised I was worrying away about where my next job was going to come from and how long I’d have to wait for it. As an actor, this is often a worrying part of my career, but the thing is, I have a great TV job lined up for the summer so why was I getting ahead of myself and letting this positive thing suddenly get swamped by negatives about what will happen after?? When I decided to let the what ifs go and realistically think to myself ‘ yeah you’re going to be out of work again, but you’ve done it before and you’ll handle it the next time too’ I felt free to enjoy the hope and anticipation of the next job.

    My point is, that morning anxiety isn’t just there to cause you to flip out. Its telling you that something in your thought process needs a wee bit of attention.

    much love.xx

  • Gabrielle

    My morning anxiety is increased by almost always waking up tired since having my son. I get anxious the night before worrying if I will have enough energy to get through another day of caring for my son and doing all the other stuff I have to do. I never made the connection between morning anxiety and this feeling of being overwhelmed. Worrying about meeting the demands of the day oftentimes affects how i sleep, which makes me more anxious. It’s a vicious cycle.

  • Clara

    It’s really great that you wrote about this Sheryl. I remember when my anxiety and depression were at their worst, waking up felt like a daily tragedy. Waking from a bad dream into a nightmare. Even as I started to recover, mornings were always always the worst. I would wake up early, around 5am, and lie there in dumb panic for a couple of hours until I was able to get up. I wish I knew you and your work then as I might have been able to draw some meaning from the experience, rather that just judge myself. But I’m well again now, and certainly have drawn much meaning from the whole episode. Even now though I sometimes find myself caught in the liminal zone in the morning feeling scared, I often say to my partner “I’m scared”, and she says “what are you scared of darling”, but I can’t name it. A few moments later I fully wake, the fear has vanished and I feel a little foolish. You post reminds me to attend to this early feelings. Thank you.

    • Beautiful exchange between you and your partner in the mornings. What matters more, I think, than being able to articulate exactly what the fear is about is just being able to name it as fear, just as you’re doing. I also think that this morning anxiety is often linked to a pre-verbal state and that’s why it’s hard to express it in words. It could be linked to birth trauma or being left in the crib alone (not you specifically but in general) which is why it also needs our gentle, loving attention, like a tender mother to her baby .

      • Clara

        Thank you, Sheryl. Since writing the above, I’ve realised with some sheepishness, but also some amusement, that my morning terrors only really occur when I’m in the middle of a significant transition: identity crisis (Saturn return, dark night of the soul, whatever you want to call it),, then engagement, and now as I return to uni and embark upon an entirely new career. Yet another piece of evidence for the link between these anxious experiences and transitions.

        Thank you for suggesting the possibility of pre-verbal trauma in all this. I have for sometime thought this might be a significant piece for me, given that I have always been told that I was a very distressed baby for the first year of my life. How do we work with such early material in a way that isn’t just speculative?

        • It can be helpful to approach pre-verbal trauma through body-based and/or creative therapies, like acupuncture (with the right person), creative movement, art therapy, and deep tissue massage. It’s also helpful to do exactly what you’re doing: noticing the fear and/or grief and bringing deep compassion to it, while allowing any feelings that need to be expressed filter up and move through you.

  • Natasha

    Sheryl, your writing is truly exquisite and I find that you almost always articulates my own thoughts and experiences in a way that makes perfect sense. Thank you.

  • RTP

    Sheryl, as always your posts are so timely. I struggle with morning anxiety on and off and just when i work through one area of my life and feel that the anxiety has subsided another anxiety rears its head. Also sometimes i feel anxious and sometimes i have such clarity around who i really am and how i want to be in this world and feel like i have such power over the anxiety and the direction of my thoughts and life. As i read your post i’m hearing that i need to be more consistent with my practices rather than always being in response to when the anxiety strikes. Thanks again for bringing this need to the forefront for me. 🙂

    • “As i read your post i’m hearing that i need to be more consistent with my practices rather than always being in response to when the anxiety strikes. Thanks again for bringing this need to the forefront for me.”

      YES!

  • Tam

    Dear Sheryl,

    Wow. Every time I read one of your posts, I am in awe of how you are able to read my mind. My bf and I have been together for 5 years. We broke us last September for a few months (I had just started working aka a transition and I got scared) and now we’re back (for 2 months now). Being an anxious person is just so horrible. I need to put that out there. I have constant worries, at the beginning they involved whether I loved my bf, then now my worries moved to whether my bf loves me. I doubt every word and analyze every text message and just drive myself insane. I’m so scared. I love my boyfriend so very much and so does he. I’m just living in this constant fear of losing him, losing us and what we have. I keep getting scared that I’d let my anxiety control me and I’m just so scared. For now, I just try to let the thoughts and fears be; to consider them an drifting passenger and to let them go. Some days it works and others it doesn’t. I’d love to hear some of your advice regarding this. Thank you.

  • Sam

    Sheryl , i am passing through worst morning anxiety. I woke up 2 3 hours before the normal time and start to feel panic. It almost happens every day. I start to think that i should end this relationship only then i will better. Please help.

    • Isabella

      I feel your pain Sam. My anxiety is always worst in the mornings because I’ll wake up and feel empty. These past few days I’ve been feeling empty all day. It makes me think maybe this is the end, but yesterday I just kept crying all day because I know I won’t be happy without my boyfriend. I even told him that I’m jealous his feelings come so easy and I’m struggling. Today is his birthday and I want nothing more than to enjoy it with him, but I’m scared I won’t be able to. I can’t stand this emptiness. 🙁

  • Ali

    Thanks for this post. I have never had problems falling asleep like most people with anxiety. Mornings have always been rough. I spend the first few hours every morning trying to calm myself down and breaking down the negative thought cycles that start churning. I have been trying to face the thoughts and find the root to them but once I find the root, I can’t seem to stop mulling over the thoughts. Suggestions?

    • If you’re mulling over the thoughts then you’re still stuck in the addictive mental cycle. The root cause is in the feeling realm, so the work is to drop down out of your head and into your heart/body/breath where the stored pain lives.