8 Things Therapists Do In The Morning When They're Stressed

Do you wake up anxious or overwhelmed? Here's what the mental health pros do when they're in this situation.
Steal one of these expert tips the next time you wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
Steal one of these expert tips the next time you wake up on the wrong side of the bed.

You’re reading First Thing, a weekly series on HuffPost UK helping to make your mornings happier and healthier.

Some mornings you wake up with darting thoughts and a crappy mood that just makes you want to crawl back under the covers.

It’s totally OK to feel stressed before the day has begun. We all have mornings like this from time to time. Even mental health professionals – who may seem like they have it all together – aren’t immune to them.

We asked therapists to share the tips that help them feel better when they’re having a stressful morning. Here’s what they do to de-stress and relax.

A journaling exercise

Jack Turban, a fellow in child and adolescent psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, says he starts the day off with a journaling exercise to decrease anxiety.

First, I write out my tasks for the day, which helps alleviate any worries I have about forgetting something,” he says. “Next, I jot down a mantra – a short, positive phrase that I’m going to repeat to myself throughout the day. Lastly, I add a few things that I’m grateful for and a few things that I’m excited about to begin my day on a positive note.”

Journaling every morning can feel comforting as it offers a sense of routine, which may help alleviate the anxiety that comes with unpredictability. If Turban’s prompts don’t feel like a fit for you, spend a few minutes after you wake up to write down your thoughts, a to-do list or just whatever makes you happy.

Walk outside for a few minutes

Spending time outdoors can be profoundly calming and uplifting.

“When I wake up in the morning, I typically take my dog for a walk. We walk together for about 10 to 15 minutes, which is just enough to start the day with some activity and a good decompression,” says Jessica Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who also listens to podcasts on her walk, such as Lucy Kalanithi’s Gravity or Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert, to help her relax and de-stress.

Aim to spend at least 10 minutes outside to lift your mood.
Aim to spend at least 10 minutes outside to lift your mood.

Engage the senses

“When I wake up stressed, I actively give myself permission to enjoy the start of my morning while not thinking about whatever the stressor is,” says Neha Chaudhary, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who she spends at least 10 minutes quieting her mind and grounding herself in the present moment.

“I focus on the sensations I’m experiencing from my morning coffee, from the smell to the taste to the warmth of the mug in my hands,” Chaudhary says. “Sometimes, I’ll also listen to soothing music.”

Taking some time to refocus your attention from your stressors to the present can be very soothing and therapeutic, even if it’s just for a small period of time.

Read or listen to something inspirational

When you wake up, reach for something that inspires you and brings you joy. It can be reading passages of an inspirational book, listening to affirmations or hearing a talk from a leader you admire.

“Engaging in something positive that sets the precedent is better than an intervention in the midst of midday stress,” said Riana Elyse Anderson, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Anderson said she personally does this by reading a devotional from the Bible that helps her set the tone for the day, but your choice may look different.

Sit in your stress for a while

This may sound counterintuitive and uncomfortable, but the point is to normalise the feeling ― because stress is natural, and you’re not alone.

“I take up to 10 minutes every morning after I wake up to feel any negative, heavy or stressful feelings I may have before the day starts,” said Brittany Johnson, a therapist in New Albany, Indiana. “I use mindfulness to visualise my thoughts and feelings as words or images that I am pushing away.”

Allow yourself to feel your feelings, even if they're unpleasant.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings, even if they're unpleasant.

Set boundaries right away

Setting limits gives you agency and helps lift your mood. When I wake up stressed, I focus on setting boundaries,” said Rebecca Leslie, a psychologist in Atlanta. “I will intentionally wait to respond to emails, phone calls and texts until I have taken time to check in with myself and cultivate calmness.”

Enforcing boundaries for yourself and learning to take a break without guilt decreases stress and prevents burnout. Having limits in place also frees you up for more opportunity to do the work and activities you are excited about.

Take a few deep breaths

Kristin Meekhof, therapist and co-author of A Widow’s Guide to Healing, said she engages in deep breathing to embrace self-care and let go of stress. One of her favourite soothing practices is called “alternate nostril breathing.” The technique, outlined below, only takes five minutes:

  • Step 1: Press both nostrils with your pinky finger and thumb and hold your breath for four seconds.

  • Step 2: Open your right nostril and exhale for four seconds.

  • Step 3: Inhale through your right nostril for four seconds.

  • Step 4: Close both nostrils and hold your breath for four seconds.

  • Step 5: Open your left nostril and exhale for four seconds.

  • Step 6: Inhale through your left nostril for four seconds.

  • Step 7: Repeat for five minutes.

Cuddle in bed

“Before jumping out of bed in a hurry, slow down and cuddle. Whether it’s a soft blanket, partner, pet, cuddling helps relax the nervous system and decreases stress,” said Katelyn Anderson, a therapist and founder of Equip Sleeping Co. “I spend the first five minutes after waking up to cuddle in bed as a way to ground myself before a hectic day.”

Cuddling releases endorphins – known as “feel good” chemicals – that help reduce anxiety and boost happiness, she said. Sink into your comfiest clothing and nourish your body with a daily snuggle session.

First Thing is a weekly series on HuffPost UK Life giving you tips and advice on how to enjoy your mornings. Whether you’re an early bird or night owl, starting your day off right will make for a happier and healthier day. We’ll be sharing exercise advice, nutrition guidance, as well as ideas on forming new habits. (And no, the answer to a productive morning isn’t just setting an alarm for 5am!)