Do you often find yourself waking up with anxiety? If so, you’re not alone. Morning anxiety is one of the more common forms of anxiety out there.
Unfortunately, many people find it hard to deal with (or even talk about) because there’s no obvious cause or trigger for the anxiety—“I’m anxious the minute I’m awake” is the way it’s usually described.
The good news is that waking up with anxiety doesn’t have to be a mystery. There are reasons why you are waking up feeling anxious. And more importantly, there are very good ways to stop the cycle and end morning anxiety for good.
In the rest of this guide, I’ll walk you through how morning anxiety works and then give you some practical tips to stop the habit of waking up with anxiety for good.
Let’s dive in!
What is morning anxiety?
Morning anxiety is when you feel anxious or afraid immediately after waking up from sleep.
For most people, there isn’t even a moment when they weren’t anxious—it’s as if they were anxious in their sleep and simply woke up into that anxiety.
Typically, morning anxiety lasts while you are still in bed but tends to decrease quickly once you get up and start your day. Although, for some people, the anxiety persists or even gets stronger as the morning goes on.
Common signs and symptoms of morning anxiety
Here are some common signs or symptoms of morning anxiety:
- Worries and negative thinking. If you find yourself waking up with anxiety, it’s common to experience a flood of worries and anxious thoughts. Typically they are about the immediate future—things you have to do that day, for example—but they can also focus on regrets in the past or how you are feeling in the present. Worries about feeling anxious in the morning are common.
- Nervousness, fear, or dread. In addition to the mental symptoms of worry and negative thinking, morning anxiety also leads to many anxiety-based emotional states like nervousness, dread, or a sense of impending doom.
- Tense muscles or restlessness in the body. It’s not uncommon to also have physical manifestations of morning anxiety. Muscle tension and a general sense of restlessness or agitation are common. Stomach discomfort is also frequently reported.
- Trouble going back to sleep. Once you’re feeling anxious and worried, it’s very difficult to go back to sleep. Although most people who struggle with waking up with anxiety do remain in bed for a while trying to go back to sleep, they’re rarely successful.
- Panic. Occasionally, morning anxiety gets to very high levels and can lead to a panic attack. Generally, this happens when there is a lot of worry about feeling anxious and the symptoms that go along with it (especially bodily symptoms).
Why do I keep waking up with anxiety?
One of the most frustrating parts about morning anxiety is that there usually isn’t an obvious cause or trigger.
Here’s the critical key idea you need to understand if you want to know why you keep waking up with anxiety:
There’s a big difference between the initial cause of your morning anxiety and the maintaining cause.
Any number of factors can cause morning anxiety initially:
- A period of high stress
- Relationship conflict
- Physical illness or medical issues
But there’s usually only one thing that maintains morning anxiety and keeps it going: the habit of worry.
Almost always, the pattern with morning anxiety looks like this:
- Some external issue causes a period of morning anxiety initially. For example, if you have a 2-week period of work that is incredibly stressful, it would make sense that that work stress would be on your mind first thing in the morning. Or, if you had a bad case of the flu for a week, it would make sense that you might start waking up and immediately worrying about how you’re going to feel.
- You get in the habit of worrying about waking up anxious. If you’ve had a temporary period of waking up anxious, it’s understandable that you would get in the habit of “checking” whether you were anxious first thing upon waking. The problem is that when you get in the habit of looking for signs of anxiety first thing in the morning, it quickly turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy because you’re training your brain to worry as soon as you wake up. Eventually, it becomes a habit that’s so automatic it just starts happening on its own.
To sum up:
Many things can cause morning anxiety initially, but it’s worrying about being anxious that keeps you waking up with anxiety.
We’ll talk about some practical ways to break this habit of worry and escape the cycle of morning anxiety in the final section of this guide.
Is morning anxiety common?
Morning anxiety is more common than you would think.
Because morning anxiety seems so strange (usually there’s no obvious explanation), most people don’t talk much about it. And as a result, it feels more uncommon than it actually is.
In fact, one of the most painful parts of waking up with anxiety is how lonely and isolating it feels to have this major struggle you deal with that no one else seems to understand.
Is it possible to stop waking up with anxiety?
In my clinical practice, morning anxiety was something I saw all the time. As a result, I developed a set of pretty effective tools and strategies to help people break the cycle of waking up with anxiety, and instead, retrain their brains to wake up into peace and calm instead.
The key idea, though, is that morning anxiety is a habit. This means that it will take some time, effort, and a little patience if you want to break it.
In the next section, I’ll walk you through 10 of the best strategies I’ve found for ending morning anxiety for good.
10 tips to stop waking up with anxiety
The following is a collection of the most effective ways I know to break the habit of morning anxiety.
Don’t feel like you need to start doing all of them right away. The first tip—stop sleeping in—is actually the one I’d recommend most people try first. In many cases doing that one thing alone is enough to break the habit of waking up with anxiety.
For others, you might need to try a few different ones and see which apply most to your particular situation. For example, if your morning anxiety seems to be highly related to worries about work and what you need to do during the day, numbers 7, 8, and 9 might be most applicable.
1. Stop sleeping in
Remember: waking up with anxiety is a habit. And if you want to get out of this habit, you need to break the pattern of immediately worrying and then feeling anxious when you wake up.
The simplest way to do this is to just get right out of bed in the morning. No snoozing, no “trying” to fall back asleep, no breathing exercises in bed to calm yourself down. Just get up and get on with your day.
When you get out of bed immediately, you don’t give your brain the chance to worry and be anxious because you’re preoccupied with other things—taking a shower, making breakfast, going for a walk, etc. Do this repeatedly, and your brain will start to unlearn this nasty lesson that the most important thing to do when you wake up is worry and feel anxious.
Easier said than done, of course. But I have seen many, many examples of people who struggled with morning anxiety for years, and after implementing this one change—no snoozing or trying to go back to sleep—their morning anxiety was gone in a matter of weeks.
Set yourself a challenge of not sleeping in for 7 days in a row and see what happens to your morning anxiety.
2. Distinguish physical discomfort from anxiety
One of the most subtle but powerful reasons morning anxiety sticks around is because we mistakenly interpret physical aches, pains, and discomfort as signs of anxiety, which then leads to more worry and anxiety.
It’s an easy mistake to make because anxiety often causes physical symptoms like muscle tension, stomach pain, tingling in the extremities, headaches, etc. But just because these things can come from anxiety, doesn’t mean they always do.
There are all sorts of reasons you might wake up with physical pains and discomfort that don’t involve anxiety: sleep apnea, for example. Or even a poor mattress or bad sleep posture.
In any case, if you frequently wake up with physical pain or discomfort, it’s important to not automatically assume it’s a sign of anxiety. Instead, acknowledge that discomfort and try to think of one or two non-anxiety causes for that discomfort.
Learn More: Cognitive restructuring is a powerful technique that can help you change the way you think to be more realistic and positive.
3. Validate your anxiety
Ultimately, what causes anxiety to stick around is that we worry about anxiety.
When you worry about anxiety, it teaches your brain that anxiety is dangerous. This means your brain will be more on the lookout for anxiety in the future and more likely to make you feel anxious if it notices any. This creates a vicious cycle of anxiety leading to worry leading to more anxiety and more worry.
So instead of immediately starting to worry about your anxiety and analyze where it might be coming from and what type of negative consequences will result, try this instead: validate your anxiety.
Validating your anxiety means that you acknowledge it plainly and remind yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
For example, if you wake up feeling panicky, you might say the following to yourself:
Well, I’m waking up anxious again. But, you know what, it’s not really surprising since it’s a habit. And even though I don’t like feeling this way, I know it’s not dangerous to feel anxious. The best thing I can do right now is to get out of bed and take a shower. I know that I usually start feeling better once I get on with my day.
Learn More: How to Validate Your Emotions in 3 Simple Steps
4. Create an enjoyable morning routine
As I mentioned, the key to breaking the habit of morning anxiety is to get right out of bed and not let your worries start building and reinforcing the habit.
But getting out of bed right away is tough!
Over the years, I’ve found that people who regularly get out of bed right away have one thing in common: an enjoyable morning routine.
Having a morning routine you actually enjoy (instead of dread) pulls you out of bed each morning so you don’t have to push yourself so much.
- You might set your alarm an extra ten minutes early so that you have time in the morning to make a nice cup of coffee instead of grabbing a mediocre and expensive one at Starbucks.
- Maybe you make time each morning to get to the office a half an hour early and work on that side project or hobby you keep saying you’re going to start.
- Or maybe you save your favorite podcast for your morning commute instead of listening to it in the evenings after work.
Whatever you choose to do, remember this: When you have something genuinely enjoyable to look forward to first thing in the morning, you’ll be much more likely to get right out of bed and start to break the cycle of morning anxiety.
5. Get moving early
Research shows that exercise and increased physical activity are one of the best antidotes to anxiety. And this is just as true for morning anxiety as any other.
When you’re laying in bed with very little movement or stimulation, your worry brain has free rein over your experience. But when you’re up, moving, and exposing yourself to new stimuli, you have a lot more competing with your worry, which means it’s going to be easier to break the worry cycle and keep your attention on something else.
The other benefit of some kind of exercise or physical activity early in the morning is that it gives you a small sense of accomplishment and healthy pride. And when you genuinely feel good about yourself, it tends to counteract worry and anxiety because it’s confidence-building.
6. Minimize daily stressors assertively
It’s a simple fact that you’re more likely to worry and feel anxious if you’re stressed. And that means that you’re more likely to stay stuck in the cycle of waking up with anxiety if you’re chronically stressed.
Now, most people struggle with chronic stress because of one big mistake:
They try to manage their stress instead of managing their stressors.
Stress is how you feel (mentally, emotionally, and physically) after being exposed to a stressor. The key to having less stress in your life—and minimizing the morning anxiety that comes with it—is to manage your stressors so that they don’t lead you to getting stressed out in the first place.
- Getting stressed about having to do extra work on the weekends isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that your manager keeps assigning you work and you’re too afraid to set boundaries and say no.
- Feeling resentful and stressed out because your spouse is not being more affectionate isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that you’re afraid to ask for what you want directly.
When you’re chronically stressed, you’re much more vulnerable to waking up with anxiety. But managing your stress is just a Band-Aid. To really be less stressed, you need to manage your stressors—the things causing the stress in the first place. And to do that, you need to be more assertive.
Learn More: An Expert Guide to Assertive Communication
7. Make your to-do list the day before
A lot of morning anxiety stems from feeling overwhelmed with everything you have to get done:
- Upcoming deadlines and to-dos for work
- Personal projects you’ve been procrastinating on
- Tasks you need to accomplish for kids or family members
While no one item on your to-do list is undoable, the fact that you’re juggling so many can become pretty overwhelming. And when the mind gets overwhelmed, it’s easy to get lost in worry and anxiety.
One way to address this problem of to-do overwhelm is to build a small habit that I call The 4:55 Drill. The 4:55 Drill simply means taking a little bit of time at the end of your workday to list out the most important things you need to get done the next day.
This simple practice can help a lot with the problem of waking up with anxiety because it’s a way to reassure your brain that you’re on top of all your to-dos and that nothing will slip through the cracks.
And when your brain believes this, it’s much less likely to throw lots of unnecessary worries and anxiety at you.
Learn More: The 4:55 Drill
8. Scheduled time to worry on purpose
Worry is the engine of anxiety: The more you worry, the more anxious you’re going to feel.
So whether you worry at work or at home, in the evenings or first thing in the morning, the only way to control your anxiety is to control the worry that produces it.
And the best exercise I know to get your worry under control is a little routine called scheduled worry. The basic idea is that you make a little time each day to worry on purpose and on paper. By getting your worries out of your head and actually acknowledging them, you train your brain that there’s a right time to worry—and by extension, not to worry during other times.
It seems counterintuitive, but making time to worry on purpose at a regular time is by far the most powerful way I know to reduce the habit of worry. And when you get better at breaking the habit of worry, you’ll end up feeling much less anxious.
9. Improve your sleep
Poor quality sleep is detrimental to your morning anxiety for two reasons:
- Poor sleep makes you more vulnerable to anxiety generally. After a bad night’s sleep, regulating our difficult emotions like anxiety and frustration is much harder because our frontal cortex isn’t functioning optimally. So when you wake up from a night of low-quality sleep, your ability to acknowledge and detach from your worries and anxiety is impaired. On the other hand, if you’ve gotten deep, restful sleep, you’ll find it much easier to manage your worries and anxiety.
- Poor sleep makes it harder to get out of bed right away. As we discussed earlier, the key to breaking the habit of waking up with anxiety is to not stay in bed once you’re awake. But if you didn’t sleep well, the urge to stay in bed is going to be very strong. On the other hand, if you’re well-rested, it’ll be a lot easier to just get up and start your day as soon as your alarm clock goes off.
Unfortunately, a lot of the advice you hear about getting better sleep is either misguided or just the same old drivel about sleep hygiene.
10. Rethink your career
I’ve saved the toughest for last…
Sometimes the biggest cause of morning anxiety is working in a career you hate.
This one’s tough because a career is obviously not something most of us can just change quickly. What’s more, many of us have other people dependent on our work and career, so switching to something that’s more meaningful can seem like it’s not an option.
And honestly, maybe it’s not.
However, I think you owe it to yourself to at least consider this point strongly if you’ve tried all the other tips on this list without much success.
Because if you think about: Why wouldn’t you be waking up with anxiety each morning if you had to go spend all day doing work you despised?
One clue that your morning anxiety may be rooted in your work is if it’s noticeably worse on mornings when you have to go to work and noticeably less when you don’t.
In any case, hard as it may be to confront, if your job or career is the root cause of your stress and anxiety—and you’ve tried everything else—it might be time to seriously explore the possibility of changing careers. Or at least seeing if you can change jobs, companies, or even divisions/departments within your company.
All you need to know
Waking up with anxiety is a painful and surprisingly common struggle many people suffer with. But there are very good ways to deal with it if you’re willing to put in some work and be patient.
At the end of the day, morning anxiety is a habit. And habits can be broken.
If you struggle with morning anxiety like this, I’d encourage you to try out one or two of these tips for a week or two and see if you can’t start to make some progress on this anxiety.