Shut Up, Brain is a column by Jill Gutowitz in which she looks at everything from pop culture phenomena to the quirks of interpersonal relationships through the lens of someone who lives with anxiety.
I can prepare for nighttime anxiety. I have all day to ready myself, anticipating that familiar feeling creeping in on me as the sky darkens. I can mold my plans around it. The same cannot be said for morning anxiety—there is something so shocking, so cruel, and so unfair about waking up to that feeling, about going from a dream state to a nightmare in the literal blink of an eye.
Anxiety comes in swings; it transmutes, taking on new shapes when it's run its course in a previous form. Recently, my anxiety did just that, and swung from night shivers to morning sweats. Morning anxiety has breathed new life—very, very bad life—into the meaning of the phrase "I woke up like this." It's completely overhauled my mental health, and finding a solution has been painstaking. At times, it's felt insurmountable, because when anxiety is the very first thing I feel in the morning, it's hard to find the motivation to get up at all.
Most mornings, at almost exactly 5am, I wake up gasping for air. I have no hope of going back to sleep for at least a few hours—it's as if my internal body clock springs into frenetic action at the same time each day, but not in a productive way. My eyes split open, and before the orange sun cracks through my blinds, before I even come into my physical body—as in, before I start sweating or shivering or having physical reactions—my brain starts vibrating.
I haven't even picked the crust from the corners of my eyes (shut up, you do it too) when I start running through the mammoth, overarching issues in my life: What if I don't make enough money this month to afford rent? Should I drop my health care so I can guarantee that I make rent? Should I move into a studio and live alone because of my mental health issues? How will I ever make enough money to afford that? Will my mental health continue to decline because I can't get a hold on my finances and my home? Will I be alone forever? You know, fun, normal stuff.
And once I've exhausted my existential checklist—like, I'm flailing, I'm profoundly alone, I'm nobody—then I move on to today's to-do list. By that point, it feels impossible to get out of bed and do something as insignificant as laundry when I'm already thinking something like, Are we all just sacks of blood whirring past each other with no real direction or purpose? Why should I shower when I'm mid-existential crisis, bound by a dread and loneliness and feeling like an utter failure? (Wow, I'm just realizing how mean I am to myself—something to work on in the future.)
Basically, by the time 6am strikes, I'm shaking, staving off tears, and have been stewing for an hour about my mortal coil. And when that happens, even attempting to make a dent in what I have to do each day feels unconquerable. So, I talked to a mental health expert on how to force myself up, even if that means barrel-rolling on to the floor in my comforter.
Andrea Glik, a somatic therapist, told me that morning anxiety is actually a common experience. "The morning, for a lot of people, symbolizes the start to the long list of things they have to do that they keep in their head, or the start of cognition after sleep," she said. "Also, as many people know, anxiety can follow you into sleep through bad and/or anxiety dreams."
Glik also explained that anxiety swings are different for everyone, and depend on our nervous systems' cycles. "The nervous system is a network that runs throughout the body that tells us how to act and feel based on the information our body is interpreting," she said. "If someone is in a hyper-aroused place in the morning or most of the time—anxious, stressed, irritable, angry, think the top of a rollercoaster—then the morning is the start to their daily release of cortisol and other stress hormones. The body is awake, and follows its pattern of sending cortisol throughout the body. The body is interpreting being awake as a stressor." This confirms the hypothesis I've never wanted to actually prove true: being awake is my biggest trigger. Kidding (barely).
So, are there solutions? Kind of. Like everything with anxiety, it's a learning curve. Training myself to allay anxiety takes dedication, persistence, and strength of mind. "All of this happens because our bodies have learned lessons about the world and what we need to survive," Glik told me. "Your body may be stuck in a response or hyper- or hypo-aroused place, and that's totally normal, and your body is just trying to keep you safe and do its job… If you are feeling hyper-aroused and/or anxious, think about what your body needs to come down the coaster."
For me, the only solution—or, I won't call it a solution, because that feels like a permanent and resolved destination, when actually it's more about seeking moments of peace—is morning walks or jogs. Exercise and fresh air. Something that gets me outside, moving, and breathing. There's a short hiking trail near my apartment. The first half, I trudge uphill, and the second half, I walk or jog downhill. And when I make it to the peak, I usually sit on a bench, drink some water, and—excuse how cheesy this is—literally try and appreciate nature. The combination of adrenaline, endorphins, and the physical presence of the greens and blues and wood-chips crunching under my feet—the leafy smells, the sounds of chirping birds and rustling branches—organically lifts me. Nothing else that I've tried has cleared my head so successfully and thoroughly. Glik confirmed that physical experience is a great way to get out of your head, too.
"I find the body to be a good place to go so we don't get even more stuck in our minds and thoughts," she said. "We want to purposely trigger the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of the nervous system that brings us back down the coaster: Breathing, movement to release energy, eating something calming without any stimulants—aka sugar—grounding through a visualization, or noticing the room you're in are all techniques that communicate to the body it's time to slow down and come down, and that we are safe, and everything is going to be okay."
When you're lying in bed, paralyzed by your own thoughts, the idea of any physical exertion seems unmanageable—trust me, I know, because it took time and persistent effort to get myself out of bed and walk that very first time. But on my worst days, when I've already scrolled through social media for hours, cried about my loneliness and finances and quality of life, I make a promise to myself that I will just do ONE thing that morning to make me feel good—and to do that thing before I do anything else. For me, that one thing is a walk and fresh air. Ensuring that I do my one thing first takes the pressure off that seemingly unconquerable to-do list. Because when I'm at my worst, EVERYTHING feels like a roadblock: Putting my contacts in. Feeding the cat and changing her water. Brushing my teeth. Washing my face. Skin-care routine. Shower. Clothes. Make the bed. It all adds up.
"The best way is to start your day getting centered in your body and resisting the default to give into the mind and all its racing thoughts," Glik said. "Even if that's just with cooking breakfast or having a cup of something hot, do it and notice what it feels like, smells like, tastes like. That small moment of mindfulness will calm those thoughts by bringing your attention out of your mind and inside yourself."
I've been able to turn around my most treacherous mornings—those mornings that are brimming with self-loathing, mornings when I wake up choking on my own tongue—with an hour-long walk. I know that not everyone has that luxury, as I work from home, so I can afford a walk in the morning without being late to work. But if there are days when you can squeeze it in—say, a day when you wake up an hour before your alarm and know you're going to stew for the next 60 minutes instead of sleeping—try to just do one small thing for yourself, something that'll make you feel good.
And I promise you, that thing is not scrolling through social media, fishing for fan edits of Rachel Weisz and Kathryn Hahn flirting—I've tried it. That certainly brings me into my body in other ways—just not productive ones.