Many people know what it feels like to wake up and immediately feel stressed, worried, or nervous about the day ahead. Usually, anxiety is limited to stressful situations like a job interview or an important presentation. However, if you regularly feel anxious as soon as you wake up, it’s important to understand why.
Common symptoms of anxiety include:
Dread for the upcoming day
Trouble going back to sleep
Feeling on edge, jittery, or irritable
Feeling fatigued, despite having a full sleep
This is sometimes referred to as “morning anxiety.” It can be challenging to manage if it is there before you can even try any calming strategies. It is not a diagnosable condition in itself, but it may be a sign you are also suffering from an underlying anxiety disorder.
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There are several reasons why you might feel anxious as soon as you open your eyes in the morning.
The cortisol awakening response
Cortisol is commonly known as our “stress hormone,” and it is essential for various functions throughout the body.
Over a 24-hour period, it is normal for the cortisol levels in our body to fluctuate. It follows a general pattern where it is lowest in the late afternoon and evening but spikes in the first 30-45 minutes after we wake up, get out of bed, and start our morning routine. This is known as the cortisol awakening response¹.
Although this biological response occurs in everyone, this early morning cortisol spike can worsen pre-existing symptoms in people who are already stressed or struggle with anxiety. It can bring on an increased heart rate, higher blood pressure, and the production of more adrenaline.
Additionally, since cortisol is released in response to stress, evidence has shown² that the cortisol awakening response can be influenced by either existing chronic stress or anticipation of stressful situations in the day. Because of this, people who have persistent anxiety have been shown to have higher cortisol levels, including a bigger morning peak and cortisol awakening response.
Caffeine and sugar in the morning
Caffeine can increase cortisol³ levels, which means it can influence stress reactions.
Caffeine also causes an increase in adrenaline, which is responsible for turning on the “fight or flight response.” In addition, caffeine blocks a signaling molecule called adenosine⁴, which helps you relax.
Although some studies suggest that low doses of caffeine may help anxiety and mood, other studies have shown that people who consume moderate to high amounts of caffeine have greater anxiety levels. It has been shown to make symptoms worse⁵ for people who already have anxiety.
Since coffee is generally drunk early in the morning, this means that it could increase the anxiety that you’ve already been feeling since waking up.
However, sudden caffeine withdrawal can also cause anxiety-like symptoms. This means that if you stop drinking coffee to try and reduce your anxious thoughts, you may not feel the benefits right away.
Simple sugars can also cause a rapid energy spike and rise in blood sugar levels, followed by a sudden drop. Although this doesn’t directly cause anxiety, it can worsen your symptoms⁶ if you are already struggling. If you add sugar to your morning coffee or have sugary cereal for breakfast, this could be an issue.
It is well known that anxiety can lead to poor sleep. Also, sleep deprivation can cause⁷ anxiety, which can turn into a cycle that continues to make your anxiety symptoms worse.
A study found that⁸just one night of poor sleep can influence anxiety and that the anxiety levels of people who did not sleep at all were 30% greater than when that same group of people had a full night's sleep. It is thought that a lack of sleep causes changes in brain activity associated with activation of areas that regulate emotions and decreased activity of brain areas that reduce anxiety.
Sleep deprivation is also associated with having higher levels of cortisol⁹.
Low blood sugar levels
When you are asleep, your body uses up stored glucose. This means when you wake up in the morning, you could have low blood sugar levels.
Low blood sugar levels can bring on anxiety and its associated symptoms. This is because our body releases hormones that cause the liver to produce more glucose so that blood sugar levels can return to a normal level. One of the hormones released is adrenaline, responsible for the stress response and anxiety-like symptoms.
Feeling anxious in the morning from time to time does not mean you have an anxiety disorder.
However, if your morning anxiety is a regular occurrence for more than six months, is excessive, and seems to happen for no reason, you may have a generalized anxiety disorder.
If you suspect this is the case, it is important to see your doctor for a diagnosis and support. They will be able to immediately help you and refer you to a therapist or psychiatrist who can work with you to manage your anxiety in the long term. If needed, they may prescribe you some medications or suggest you take part in psychotherapy to assist with your treatment.
However, even if you don’t think you have a generalized anxiety disorder, seeing a doctor to assist with your occasional anxiety can still benefit your mental health.
There are some small lifestyle changes you can make to help you feel more at ease in the morning.
Avoid caffeine altogether, or at least wait until your cortisol levels decline (about an hour after you have woken up).
Consuming magnesium-rich foods, such as dark chocolate, avocados, cashew nuts, oats, pumpkin seeds, and spinach. Magnesium has been shown to play a part in controlling the stress response¹⁰ and helps you feel relaxed.
Introducing a sleep pattern and a morning routine to feel in control and know what to expect.
Start the day with some exercise to boost your endorphins and alertness.
Eating breakfast to ensure your blood sugar levels are regulated. Make sure you focus on complex sugars, such as those found in oats, Greek yogurt, apples, blueberries, and beans.
Feeling anxious as soon as you wake up can make it difficult to start your day on a positive note. There are several reasons you may experience morning anxiety, including biological causes.
Fortunately, there are small lifestyle changes that you can make that can help you start your day with less anxiety and worry. And if you require, there is professional help available.
Cortisol awakening response (2016)
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