7 Morning Activities That Are Definitely Bad For Your Anxiety

If you start your day off stressed, these common habits could be the culprit.
Cortisol, our stress hormone, spikes in the morning, which makes it important to prioritize calming activities and a steady routine before you go off to work.
svetikd via Getty Images
Cortisol, our stress hormone, spikes in the morning, which makes it important to prioritize calming activities and a steady routine before you go off to work.

A rushed, stressful morning is never a goal but is often a reality for many folks.

However, if there is ever a time of day when it’s important to prioritise your inner zen, it’s in the morning. “There’s this thing called cortisol awakening response. Our stress hormone — cortisol — actually spikes in the morning. It goes up by about 70%,” said Elizabeth (Birdie) Shirtcliff, a research professor in the centre for translational neuroscience-psychology at the University of Oregon.

“Right off the bat, mornings are tough. And our body looks at every morning as a stressor,” Shirtcliff explained.

So even if you are following a healthy routine — like eating breakfast, drinking water and getting some sunlight, for example — you’re still bound to feel some morning stress and anxiety.

What’s more, therapists say there are daily habits that make you feel more anxious in the mornings — and you’re probably unknowingly doing some of them. Here’s what they are and how to cope:

Waking up and going to bed at vastly different times each day.

“The way to make that transition from being asleep to being awake a little bit easier is to make the morning less unpredictable,” Shirtcliff said. “Getting up at very different times of day can be really tough on your body because, usually, this cortisol awakening response is going to gear up in anticipation of you waking up.”

In other words, your cortisol awakening response doesn’t start as soon as you stand up. Instead, it’s happening before you even open your eyes. So if you wake up at 5 a.m. one day, 8 a.m. the next day and 10 a.m. the day after that, that preparatory cortisol surge can’t properly happen.

“And that leads to a huge feeling of fatigue and burnout because your body is not prepared. So you end up feeling stressed out because you don’t have the protection of that awakening response,” Shirtcliff said.

To combat this, it’s important to get up and go to bed at the same time of day each day ― even on the weekends.

“That way, that morning response is ... going to happen naturally and predictably and not derail the entire day,” Shirtcliff explained.

Rushing to get out the door.

“I think one of the biggest ones is just rushing and hectic mornings,” said Amber Benziger, a licensed professional counsellor based in New Jersey.

If you press snooze over and over again, you’ll likely be hurrying around in the morning and thinking to yourself, “Why did I do that?” Benziger said. This creates a chaotic morning where you can’t go about your normal morning routine, she added. “And that starts the day off very anxious and can bleed into the rest of your day.”

To combat this, Benziger said it’s a good idea to set up a basic morning routine for yourself. This way, you won’t be in such a hectic tailspin which can alleviate some of the stress and anxiety you feel.

Checking messages or the news right away.

Bombarding yourself with lots of information in the morning isn’t making you feel any calmer.

Checking social media, headlines or emails first thing in the morning can make you feel overwhelmed or distracted from the morning tasks you need to get done to have a successful day, Benziger said.

Plus, if the news you’re taking in is anxiety-inducing (as it often is), you’ll be feeling even worse.

Drinking coffee on an empty stomach can lead to anxiety and jitteriness.
shapecharge via Getty Images
Drinking coffee on an empty stomach can lead to anxiety and jitteriness.

Not getting enough sleep.

A good night of sleep is important for lessening any next-day anxiety, Shirtcliff noted. “If you get that good night’s sleep, then you’re going to have a really nice cortisol awakening response. And that can be its own physical jumpstart for the day,” she said.

A bad night of sleep means you don’t get that cortisol awakening response. “And that means that afternoon, when you get to the point where you should be resting, you’re still catching up, and you’re still having that stress response,” Shirtcliff said.

Then you go on to have another poor night of sleep, she added, creating a stressful, bad sleep cycle. “I would say the best secret to having less anxiety in the morning is having a really good night’s sleep.”

Drinking too much caffeine.

Benziger said excessive caffeine can be a major trigger for anxiety. Caffeine is “already heightening you and sometimes can cause jitters, sometimes can mimic what it feels like to be anxious,” Benziger explained.

The definition of excessive caffeine will vary from person to person — some people can’t handle caffeine at all while others can stomach a few cups a day without feeling anxious. But, overall, 400 milligrams of caffeine is the suggested limit for adults, according to the Mayo Clinic. This is equivalent to about four cups of coffee.

What’s more, excessive caffeine consumption may be your way of unknowingly dealing with things like a lack of sleep or even dehydration, Benziger said. “A lot of times we rely on caffeine or energy drinks and things like that instead of checking in with ourselves.”

Do you need more sleep? Do you need to take a break? Do you need additional support at work? Caffeine may feel like the answer, but it certainly isn’t a long-term solution. Using caffeine to address these needs just forces you to push through and, in turn, feel more anxious.

Drinking coffee on an empty stomach.

On top of all of this, if you’re drinking caffeine before you have breakfast, you’re further adding to your stress.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, having coffee on an empty stomach can contribute to feelings of anxiety in addition to jitteriness. Why? Your body absorbs caffeine faster when there isn’t food in your stomach.

Beginning your day with negative self-talk.

According to Benziger, starting your day with negative self-talk or self-critical dialogue can also contribute to anxious feelings.

“When you look at yourself in the mirror ... what kinds of messages are you saying to yourself? Or [what kind of] thoughts are you having?” she noted.

Try to catch yourself in your negative self-talk pattern, and then think about how these types of thoughts could be making you feel stressed or anxious throughout the day, Benziger said. (Think about it: Telling yourself that all of your colleagues think you’re incapable or don’t care what you think isn’t going to make you feel calm as you’re walking into the office.)

“Routine is the secret to good stress hormones.”

- Elizabeth Shirtcliff

There are a few things you can do to decrease your morning anxiety.

“Routine is the secret to good stress hormones,” Shirtcliff said. This includes eating at the same time of day, going to bed around the same time and waking up around the same time.

“Those are all going to be ways that help your body predict the day and therefore not have to overdo it,” Shirtcliff added.

Additionally, Benziger said it’s also a good idea to incorporate joy into your morning routine — especially if you’re someone who doesn’t like mornings. You can try to spend time journaling, set an intention for the day or do whatever you need to add some joy to your routine.

Beyond your morning routine, Shirtcliff recommended socialising with others in the afternoons, and taking time to meditate and relax throughout the day. Eating a nutritious diet, drinking enough water and getting regular exercise are also ways to combat anxiety. “All of that is going to help you for the next day,” Shirtcliff explained.

Benziger said it’s also a good idea to do things in advance that can help your morning routine. “What is one thing that you can implement today that’s going to help your morning routine? Even if it’s something really small, like laying out your clothes the night before, so you can feel more prepared?”

By thinking ahead, you can prepare yourself for the next day, and lessen any morning stressors that are throwing you off and making you anxious.