You wake up in the morning, open your eyes and have some pleasant, foggy-headed thoughts about the dreams you had the night before, and a few moments later, just as those thoughts disappear from your mind and memory, it hits you:
In a split second, there it is, looming over you in a way that can only be described to somebody who has never experienced it, as a sensation that the Grim Reaper is looming over you teasing you with the fact that you might be next on his list.
Your heart rate begins to speed up and you can feel each beat thumping in your chest like its own special “beat of doom”. Your chest becomes filled with nervous energy that feels intrusive and misplaced and you are confused as to why its there because you don’t think you have any reason to feel nervous about anything. A knot gnaws at you inside your stomach. You feel weighted and heavy and have a very strong sense that something terrible is about to happen. But what that terrible thing might be, you have no idea. You feel like a hostage to your feelings and you resent the fact that everybody else in your house gets to wake up and feel “normal”, and lightly chatter on about what the day holds. You want to stay in bed and hide, but you know that isn’t an option. So you drag yourself out of bed and face the day, taking those terrible feelings with you, trying to brace yourself for whatever awful, unknown thing is about to come your way, until slowly, as the day progresses, those bad feelings fade away.
Not the greatest way to start the day, is it?
Certainly not the greatest way to start EVERY day. But as awful as morning dread is, it is actually incredibly common. Not everybody has symptoms to the dramatic degree that I described. There are various degrees to this form of anxiety. Some might have “Morning Dread Lite”, where every so often, they wake up and just feel a vague sense of uneasiness and feel a few butterflies for an hour or so as they start their day. Others, myself included, might have the full “Dread Package” that consists of everything I mentioned above, and it can happen every day for weeks or months at a time.
But one thing all of us with morning dread have in common, is some history of anxious discomfort upon waking in the mornings, combined with a sense of real frustration and confusion as to why it’s there.
As somebody who has lived through many different manifestations of morning anxiety over the years during various stages of my life, I am pretty well versed on this topic and I want to help take some of the mystery away for you, and help you understand not only why you are experiencing morning anxiety, but also, what you can do about it. As always, I encourage you to discuss your symptoms with a doctor to discuss a possibility of depression and rule out any thyroid or other medical conditions that may be triggering your anxious feelings. But for those of you who have been medically cleared, I’m here to help you understand why your day so often seems to have a crummy start.
Let me start by saying, that as with all symptoms of anxiety, morning anxiety is absolutely nothing to be afraid of. Even though it can feel as though something sinister or terrible is going on, the truth is actually quite the opposite. All of these feelings of dread and anxiety are 100% benign and treatable, and pose no threat to you in any way. They are nothing more than uncomfortable feelings that will pass with time and acceptance. These feelings are a very normal reaction to SOMETHING, whether it is your environment, your thinking, your nervous system, or some other reason. You just need to narrow down what that something is, so you can then work on correcting it. Here are some possible reasons for your morning dread.
1. Stress Hormones: Cortisol and adrenaline are designed to help get us moving and cope with danger. They are the fuel of our brain’s “fight or flight” response. Our brains release more of these hormones in the morning, usually within the first hour after awakening, to help us prepare for our day. On a normal day, when you aren’t currently going through a phase in your life where you are overly stressed out or sensitized from worry and overthinking, you may not even notice the slight elevation in heart rate or energy boost these hormones cause. But in those of us who live with chronic stress and are hyper-vigilant of every little “ping” our body makes, not only are we more likely to release more adrenaline and cortisol, but we are also more likely to FEEL it. That increase in heart rate and nervous energy that we never noticed before, can now feel like a surge that feels as though it has come from nowhere. And that anxious surge brings along its brooding cousin, Dread. Naturally, this can be quite unsettling and even alarming, especially to those of us who don’t understand what is going on.
What To Do About It: As the great Claire Weekes always said: “Let time pass”. Carry on with your morning. Accept those nervous, dreadful feelings and trust that although you are uncomfortable, you are still very safe. Just like any storm, the clouds will move through and the sun will come out, and the more you distract yourself and keep yourself busy without dwelling on the clouds, the sooner they will move through. Yes, this is easier said than done. But you must practice it anyway. If you stress out and obsess over how you are feeling, it will only keep the stress hormones flowing and that is the last thing you need. Send your brain the message that you are okay and don’t need it’s hormone help, by carrying on with your day
2. Habit: The habit of morning dread quite often progresses gradually over days, weeks and months. It doesn’t always manifest as simply waking up one day and noticing a huge giant gnawing lump in your stomach. It can also start out quite innocently, with you waking up a couple days in a row, and quickly remembering whatever stressful issue is going on in your life and focusing on it for a little bit while lying in bed. Perhaps you might feel a bit of anxiety and dread associated with those thoughts but you don’t really think too much about those feelings because you are otherwise preoccupied with the thoughts that are CAUSING those feelings, whether it is job stress or the fight you have been having with your husband for two days, or the latest weird symptom your anxiety is putting you through this week. The thing is, that after a few days in a row of this kind of thinking, a pattern develops. Without you realizing it, you have been greasing the gears for an automatic “association response” to happen. You now associate waking up with dread and stress and you slip effortlessly into this mindset within moments of waking up, without even having to think any thoughts to trigger it. The feelings come first, from somewhere in your subconscious mind, and because you don’t understand why they are there, you unknowingly compound the problem by feeling dread over your feelings of dread.
What to Do About It: Change up your routine! You have to learn to associate the morning with something besides anxiety. If you are used to lying around in bed for a while, get up right away instead. Put on some music and make your bed. Do a few minutes worth of exercise. Make a goal list. Start a nice new routine with a crossword puzzle and cup of decaf coffee or tea. focus on positive things only. Even if the negative feelings are there, you don’t have to lie around and entertain them.
3. Actual Dread: What is going on in your life? Are things hard for you right now? Is your anxiety disorder sucking the joy out of each day? Do you hate your job? Do you need a break from your kids? Has it been a long time since anything new and exciting has happened in your life?
Something that people don’t always consider is that maybe the dread they are having is REAL, pure dread in its most simple form. A lot of people don’t consider this because they look at their lives and things don’t seem that bad. They know a lot of people have it worse than them and there are no terrible issues currently going on in their life. But our subconscious minds see a lot of things that our conscious selves don’t see. And when they see that our lives are getting boring or mundane, or that we are getting older with so many goals still to accomplish, or that we deserve better than the crap job we are working, or that our personal relationships aren’t giving us the same fulfillment anymore, than they are going to let us know. Dread can be a way to get our attention – a loud SOS from our inner selves that some things in our lives need tending to.
What to do about it? Really put some thought into the possibility of there being some issues in your life that need your attention. Be honest with yourself and if there are some areas that need working on, then put a plan in action and take some positive steps toward change. Communicate with yourself and with others in your life, seeking professional support if necessary to help you progress toward a new life that doesn’t leave you feeling as though you are living somebody else’s, and triggering feelings of unease everyday.
4. Self Sabotage: Relaxing means trusting in the world and giving up our sense of control, and those are two things that those of us with anxiety issues are usually pretty terrible at. So worry and obsessing can come in pretty handy in our lives and we make quick use of them to feel as though we have some sort of protection and weapon against bad things coming our way. As long as we are in a hyper-vigilant, anxious mode, than we are safe. As long as we are worrying, than nothing can surprise us and though us off balance. Worry means we will never be unprepared for the terrible thing about to come our way. We may hate the worry, but its better than allowing ourselves to be weak, vulnerable, relaxed prey, just waiting to be devoured by misfortune. So we make serious business of keeping ourselves nervous and anxious all the time. And what better time to start than first thing in the morning?
What to Do About It? Again, this is a time to have honest communication with yourself. Does self-sabotage sound like something you engage in? If so, then you must focus on a new way to help yourself feel protected and safe. Rather than constantly allowing your subconscious mind to keep you obsessing about danger, use your conscious mind to focus on how strong and capable you are. Train yourself, through meditation, affirmations, and positive thinking to believe that even if something bad DOES happen – even if it catches you off guard – you are mentally equipped to handle it. Fears are rooted in the subconscious mind and it is our CONSCIOUS mind that holds the power to overcome them.
Achieving a new attitude of confidence, strength and resilience can be difficult. I know this. But use patience and maturity to re-direct your path away from worry. It is the only true way through any kind of anxiety.
5. Alcohol: Alcohol can make you feel great while you are at a party or hanging out with friends, but because it is a depressant it can really increase anxiety and cause you to feel down the next day. Some people can feel REALLY down.
What to Do About It: Obviously the answer would be not to drink. There are plenty of ways to have a good time without alcohol. And a lot of people decide it isn’t worth it to wake up and feel terrible just to have one night of fun. But if you do decide to indulge, don’t over-do it, be responsible, and keep your stomach full. Eating an hour before you start drinking is not enough time to get food into your system to help smooth the absorption of the alcohol. If you are going to be drinking that evening, you must start your day with a solid breakfast, then have a good lunch and dinner BEFORE you start drinking. And nibble on snacks WHILE you are drinking and stay hydrated. I can’t guarantee you that doing these things will prevent you from having a hangover or morning dread after drinking alcohol. But they offer you the best chance.
6. Hormones: PMS, and in particular, peri-menopause can stress our nervous systems enough to put them into a state of fight or flight. This alone can cause feelings of dread when we wake up in the morning. But remember that morning stress response I mentioned above? It turns out that progesterone is a buffer for the surge of cortisol that we experience upon wakening. It keeps us from receiving too much of it. So…..when our progesterone is lacking, it means we could get way more cortisol than we need which is why we feel so gloom and doom upon awakening.
What to Do About It: If you are a woman in your thirties or older, and you are experiencing morning dread, discuss this with your doctor and ask for their guidance. Anxiety is one of the most common menopause related complaints. Your GYN doctor will be very familiar with this topic and be able to run tests to check for hormonal issues and possibly be able to give you medication to take some of your symptoms away. You are NOT alone. I highly recommend you seek support through support groups. or by talking to your female relatives or girlfriends. It can help so much to know that others are going through the same thing. Facebook has some wonderful menopause/perimenopause support groups that help me a lot when hormonal anxiety starts to play with my mind and your doctor can probably recommend a support group in your area.
7. Weather: There are millions of Highly Sensitive People in the world. I am one of them. Chemicals, foods, stress, energy,/vibes, alcohol, medications, and yes….even the weather, can all affect us much stronger than the average person. Some may shake their heads at this and cry “nonsense”, but those of us who are HSPs know better. Waking up and seeing the gray light of a cloudy day pouring into our bedrooms , combined with the “blanket sensation” that the associated air pressure changes can bring, can trigger an instant, deep, and very real feeling of depression and gloom.
What to Do About It: The key is to find something to like about cloudy days and focus on that. What I tell myself is that cloudy days are a sign that the universe is telling me to slow down, put off less energy and let my body and mind heal from all the “FAST” that goes on in my life. I tell myself that the down feeling I get is actually therapeutic. If I am able, I just settle in, watch TV, or work on my blog, and don’t force myself to do much of anything that is too physical.
If you live in an area that is cloudy nearly every day, that would be a difficult stance to take, and if that is the situation for you, I would recommend discussing your feelings of dread with your doctor. There are treatment options for those whose mood is affected by the weather, including light therapy.
8. Low Blood Sugar: If your morning dread is accompanied by hunger, anxiety, shakiness, a feeling of weakness, or irritability, then low blood sugar could be the cause. You don’t have to be diabetic or even clinically hypoglycemic in order to have reactions to your blood sugar being low, even if it is just on the lower end of normal.
Stress, hormones, and your personal level of sensitivity to your body can all increase your chances of feeling strong symptoms when your blood sugar dips. The typical 8-12 hour fast that occurs between your final meal of the day and your first meal the next day, causes your blood sugar to go down, and if you are particularly stressed or didn’t eat properly the day before, you are more likely to feel the symptoms of that drop in blood sugar when you wake up the next morning.
What To Do About It: If you find yourself sensitive to drops in your blood sugar, I encourage you to discuss this with your doctor to rule out clinical hypoglycemia and diabetes. In the meantime, try to eat well-balanced meals throughout the day, with healthy fats and carbohydrates. Don’t go too long without eating, and be sure to have a high protein evening snack such as a handful of nuts or a hard boiled egg to prevent your dinner-to-breakfast fast from being too long. This may help prevent your overnight blood sugar drop from being so significant that it causes you anxiety in the morning. In addition, don’t skip breakfast or wait too long in the morning before you eat. A healthy omelet with whole grain toast or a nice bowl of oatmeal with blueberries can take your blood sugar back up to a place that leaves you feeling mentally balanced and in control. Understanding how to eat in a way that satisfies your unique body chemistry can be very confusing territory, especially if you are a HSP, as I am. I have struggled with this my whole life. If you also struggle in this area, I highly recommend asking your doctor to refer you to a dietician who can guide you.
As you can see, morning dread has a multitude of causes and triggers.
By far, acceptance has been the remedy that helps me the most. Rather than fighting with my dread and resenting it every day, I accept its place in my life and choose to see it as a friendly by-product of my unique personality and my brain’s personal Protection Package for me. The way I see it, it is there like an over-protective mother telling me that I need to eat, or not drink so much, or get out of the bad relationship I might be in at the time, or to encourage me to find something positive to focus on in my life instead of gloom all the time. This attitude has helped me tremendously. If it is there in the morning when I wake up, I simply say “Hello Dread, I acknowledge you and now I’m going to have a nice day. Thank you for trying to look out for me.” And then I carry on. I had to practice this attitude and it took a few weeks back in the early days before I started noticing changes. It might take you longer. The important thing is that you stick with your positive changes and stay consistent in your efforts.
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