How Improving Sleep Can Reduce Morning Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated April 20, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Do you often wake up feeling as if you haven’t slept at all or experiencing overtones of anxiety, worry, or stress? You may find yourself feeling consumed with worry in your first moments of waking. If so, you may be experiencing morning anxiety. Developing good sleep hygiene and getting high-quality sleep can reduce the chances of experiencing morning anxiety. Practicing self-care and living a healthy lifestyle can be helpful in promoting restful sleep. Therapy and medication may also be beneficial, so you may wish to consult a licensed professional regarding potential treatment options.

What is morning anxiety? 

Though it is not necessarily a separate anxiety disorder or diagnosable condition, the term “morning anxiety” generally refers to waking up feeling worried or stressed before you’ve had a chance to encounter any cause for such emotions. This can be troubling because you may be battling anxiety before you’re awake enough to engage your coping mechanisms

Impact of the stress hormone

Anxiety in the morning can be partially explained by an increase in cortisol, a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Often called the “stress hormone”, cortisol plays an important role in the fight-or-flight response, helping facilitate several vital bodily functions. Cortisol levels are naturally higher in the morning, which can cause or exacerbate morning anxiety.  

Concerns about upcoming responsibilities

Many people experience symptoms of anxiety in the morning due to excessive worry or nervousness about the day ahead. The challenges of everyday life—work, errands, family obligations, etc.—can be difficult to manage. For those who feel anxious when thinking about their to-do list in the morning, it can be hard to lower anxiety levels throughout the day, as responsibilities accrue. This can cause them to become chronically stressed and may lead to anxiety disorders and other mental or physical health concerns.  

Anxiety disorder symptoms in the morning

Persistent anxiety and feelings of dread first thing in the morning may be an indicator of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intense or persistent fear and nervousness about various aspects of life. Anxiety disorders like GAD can significantly impact an individual’s relationships, mental and physical health, and ability to function. They also frequently occur alongside other mental health conditions—substance use disorder, major depressive disorder, and bipolar disorder are common comorbidities.

Morning anxiety may also be related to other forms of anxiety. For example, panic disorder involves frequent panic attacks, which are sudden periods of extreme anxiety characterized by a racing heart, rapid breathing, trembling, and a feeling of losing control. Panic disorder can cause an individual to feel intense apprehension at the prospect of experiencing a panic attack—a fear that may be heightened before they begin their day. It may be helpful to ask your doctor or mental healthcare provider about assessment options to diagnose anxiety. 

Do you often wake up in the morning feeling anxious?

What morning anxiety looks like

While the symptoms of morning anxiety can present differently from one person to another, medical health professionals generally agree on several common symptoms you may experience, such as the following:
  • Overwhelming feelings of impending doom, fear, or worry
  • Unwanted, intrusive, and uncontrollable racing thoughts
  • Trouble concentrating or your mind going blank
  • Restlessness 
  • Irritability
  • Trouble calming yourself down
  • Physical symptoms, such as lightheadedness, sweating, dizziness, trembling, shortness of breath, racing pulse, headache, muscle tension, and flashes of hot and cold

Why is sleep so important?

There’s often a close link between your mood and the quality of your sleep. People who experience chronic insomnia, difficulty falling asleep, and difficulty staying asleep tend to be more likely to develop mood disorders like depression and anxiety. Research shows that even a short disruption to your typical sleep schedule can trigger intense negative mood swings and shifts in personality or outlook. 

Many people who have trouble controlling their stress and anxiety reactions, such as those with GAD, may find that they wake up during the night due to anxiety or wake up in the morning feeling anxious, irritable, and unrested. Sleep can be thought of as your body’s natural reset switch, and it can often enable your mind to file away the previous day’s experiences so you can prepare for the new day. In fact, adequate sleep may even lead to a lower risk of health concerns like heart disease and inflammation.

How improving your sleep habits can reduce morning anxiety

According to research from the US Department of Health and Human Services, most adults need at least seven hours of sound sleep per day on a regular schedule to allow the body to complete its resting functions so you wake up feeling refreshed. 

When you consistently get a good night’s sleep at roughly the same time each day, research shows you may get sick less often, find it easier to maintain your weight, reduce the risk for health problems like diabetes and heart disease, lower stress, improve mood, boost focus and concentration, make social interaction more manageable, and increase your decision-making and risk-aversion abilities. If you get regular, healthy sleep, you may be less likely to experience morning anxiety symptoms. 

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Develop good sleep hygiene

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control often emphasize the importance of good sleep habits, also known as sleep hygiene. Just as your habits of caring for your teeth and body can influence your physical and dental health, your sleep hygiene may affect your physical and emotional well-being. Here are some tips for developing good sleep hygiene:

  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity during the day usually makes it easier to sleep at night. 
  • Create a consistent sleep routine. Going to sleep and waking up at roughly the same time each day can help your body adjust to a set sleep schedule. 
  • Create an atmosphere that promotes sleep. You will likely sleep better if your bedroom is dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. 
  • Think about what you eat before bed. Large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bed may prevent good-quality sleep and make anxiety worse.
  • Limit TV, phone, and other electronic use for at least one hour before bed. The blue light can suppress melatonin production.
Self-care habits to reduce morning anxiety symptoms

In addition to seeking treatment from a mental health professional, you may reduce morning anxiety through self-care habits and lifestyle changes. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, self-care “can help you manage stress, lower your risk of illness, and increase your energy”.

  • Establish healthy sleep hygiene practices to make sleeping easier.
  • Start your morning with meditation practices or other relaxing activities to help you face the day with a clear mind. For example, research shows that practicing mindfulness can reduce anxiety. 
  • Eat a healthy breakfast to fuel your body for the day. Research shows that people who eat breakfast tend to experience less stress than those who do not. Try to reduce your sugar and caffeine intake as well. 
  • Develop a positive morning routine that energizes you and sets the tone for your day. 
  • Make time for physical activity, such as yoga, a morning walk, or a short exercise routine. The release of endorphins can wake your body up and boost your mood. 
  • Focus on what you are grateful for to shift your mindset away from the things that cause anxiety. 
  • Shift your attention to the things you’re looking forward to that day instead of possible reasons for concern. 

Treatments for morning anxiety

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), American adults usually experience anxiety disorders more than any other mental health condition. As many as 40 million American adults, or 19.1% of the population, may live with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders tend to be highly treatable, and 43.2% of those 40 million Americans are receiving treatment. Seeking professional help and treatment can greatly improve your mental well-being.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is generally the most common treatment for anxiety disorders. CBT can help you learn healthy coping skills, develop a better understanding of the sources of your symptoms, and address the emotional challenges of anxiety. This therapeutic approach normally focuses on helping you identify and replace negative thought patterns and behaviors. Reframing anxious thoughts and developing practical coping strategies can help you manage morning anxiety. 

Medication

Medication cannot necessarily cure anxiety disorders, but it can be used to effectively treat symptoms, potentially making it easier to live with the condition. Be sure to consult your doctor or psychiatrist before starting or stopping any form of medication. 

Do you often wake up in the morning feeling anxious?

Know when to reach out for professional help

While some anxiety can be an expected part of life, if your morning anxiety interferes with your sleep patterns, shapes your whole day and all your interactions, or causes functional impairment in one or more areas of your life, you may be living with an anxiety disorder. It can be important to reach out to your doctor or a licensed mental health professional if you believe this may be the case.

If you notice that you wake up feeling anxious and have a hard time shaking off the tone it sets for your day, you may want to consider speaking to a licensed therapist through an online therapy provider like BetterHelp. Attending appointments from the comfort of your home or another preferred location may reduce anxiety related to starting therapy. If some of your anxiety stems from feeling busy and overwhelmed, online therapy may be a convenient avenue to pursue professional help because you can work it into your existing schedule. 

A recent study shows that online CBT can be effective in treating and preventing stress-related disorders like anxiety, often with lower costs and shorter wait times. Medical professionals usually agree that you’ll likely see increased and more effective results from CBT as you attend more sessions, so it can be helpful to commit to sticking to treatment for a certain period of time. 

Takeaway

Morning anxiety can shape your attitude and demeanor for the whole day—and often not in a positive way. Understanding the causes of morning anxiety and how healthy sleep habits can reduce its influence on your mood can help you address this challenge. Along with good sleep hygiene, self-care habits, and other practical coping strategies, online therapy can be a convenient and effective tool to help you overcome morning anxiety.
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