By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
If you commonly wake up in the morning filled with anxiety, you are not alone. Many people wake up with fight-or-flight sensations and feel baffled as to how they can already feel anxious when their feet haven’t even touched the floor yet.
A variety of factors can play a part in morning anxiety: excess stress, low blood sugar, medication side effects, poor sleep, and hormonal changes, to name a few.
Let’s say you just woke up and are greeted by a flood of anxious sensations. What do you do?
Consider the following two scenarios of a parent responding to a child with morning anxiety. As you read these scenarios, imagine that the child is the anxiety you feel and the parent’s responses are you responding to your anxious feelings.
Which scenario seems most familiar?
Susan’s daughter, Chloe, struggles with anxiety. Chloe often wakes up with a busy mind that spins with all the worst-case scenarios of the day. This morning, Chloe climbs into bed with her mom and says she feels like there’s a rock in her chest and butterflies in her tummy.
Susan responds by telling Chloe these feelings are not okay and she agrees that a lot of scary things can happen. She tells Chloe to focus on the anxious feelings and watch as they get even bigger. Susan tells Chloe she might not ever feel any better. Then Chloe starts to panic. Susan tells her even more scary things that could happen and how something might really be wrong.
After a little while, Susan grabs her smartphone and mindlessly surfs the internet for a few hours. Finally, she tells Chloe she needs to just get it together. She tells Chloe to get in the shower and grabs her a bottle of juice on the way out the door.
Kelly’s son, Jake, struggles with anxiety. Jake often wakes up with a busy mind that spins with all the worst-case scenarios of the day. This morning, Jake climbs into bed with his mom and says he feels like there’s a rock in his chest and butterflies in his tummy.
Kelly responds by wrapping her arms around Jake. She tells him that it’s okay to feel afraid. She asks him to tell her all the things he’s afraid of. After hearing his list, she is able to offer him compassion and reassure him that the scary thoughts in his mind are made-up stories and that none of those things are actually happening right now.
Kelly points out several things that are real and true in the moment. She asks Jake to focus on the softness of the blanket as she snuggles him up even closer. She asks him to focus on the pillow and the mattress under his body. She softly suggests that he try to relax his body as he focuses on his breathing.
Then Kelly asks Jake to tell her several things that he can see with his eyes, hear with his ears, and feel with his hands and feet. She reminds him of many times in the past when he felt anxious about things that either never happened or that he got through and hardly even remembers.
Kelly opens up one of her favorite guided meditations on her phone and asks Jake to listen to it with her. She tells him it’s totally fine if he still feels scared in his tummy while he’s listening. He can just breathe and follow along with the teacher’s voice as best he can.
Then Kelly makes her son a mug of warm tea and, even though he tells her he has no appetite, she makes him a delicious, nutritious breakfast and asks him to eat as much of it as he can.
Kelly plays Jake’s favorite songs while he takes a warm shower and gets dressed for school. On the way to school, she reminds Jake that hard things pass and that he can and will get through this. She teaches him that we are all born with different types of personalities and that some of us have to work a bit harder to quiet our minds. She says there are good things about being the way he is, even if he can’t feel or know it right now. Kelly tells Jake she loves him and reminds him that he is very lovable.
Does either scene resemble how you usually speak to or treat yourself when you’re experiencing challenging emotions?
While it might be hard to imagine speaking to a child like the parent did in the first scene, that is sadly how many people speak to themselves when they’re anxious.
If you struggle with morning (or anytime) anxiety, imagine the anxious feelings are your child and your wise, compassionate mind and respectful actions are the parents. Offer yourself compassion and comfort. Anchor yourself in the present moment. Give your sensations permission to exist while questioning their accompanying stories. Treat yourself like a loving, conscious parent would treat their child. Reassure yourself that all sensations, emotions, and thoughts pass, and notice the effects of your own comfort.