Self-Care Strategies To Make Your Mornings Meaningful
Right before the pandemic started, when we had just started hearing the news of a strange virus from Wuhan in China, one fine early morning, I received a call that my father has just passed away while he was out on an errand (he lived a few thousand miles away in India). The suddenness of the news paralyzed me for some time, because, hell I was not prepared.
I attribute that fact to the cause of my extreme morning anxiety. Before that incident, I would always leave my phone downstairs at night, charging, and wouldn’t bother to check my phone until quite late in the day. However, that one phone call created a hell lot of an anxiety disorder. I always felt the need to be prepared for something but regardless, all my preparations didn’t seem to be good enough.
I started feeling most anxious during the mornings. My mornings became more chaotic and I started functioning less and less during the mornings. I started bringing my phone right beside my head and started checking my phone the moment I wake up because I always anticipated something worse. I realized it’s not just generalized anxiety disorder because my anxiety was at its peak in the morning and gradually declined as the day proceeded.
It was no longer just anticipating bad news. It became a habit and I realized I had some amount of morning anxiety earlier as well but I didn’t know. When I had to go to work, I would keep worrying about getting ready on time, if I would be able to catch the morning train from my small hometown to Amsterdam Central, or if there is going to be a train cancellation, what if I cannot catch the connecting tram to office, and so on.
When I did not work or worked from home, the situation wasn’t better either. During the lockdown, my worries skyrocketed even with simpler things, like how to help my daughter with her school work from home, what’s for lunch, if I would be able to do the laundry and hang the clothes outside before the sun went down, how to balance work and life when all of us were confined to home, how to share the workspace between us and still carve out some ‘me time’. The list was endless.
Now, I take pride in analyzing my situations – good or bad. I think of myself as an analytical thinker. I kept on thinking about my emotions and why I felt the way I was feeling. I wondered if there is a thing called ‘morning anxiety’, and yes there it is.
I typed ‘morning anxiety’ in Google and Google returns 611.000.000 results in 0,62 seconds. Now I didn’t check all those results to validate my thoughts. The first link was enough to give me all the relevant information.
I am not sure when the morning anxiety had slowly started sipping into my life and became a major cause of concern, but I started using my analytical reasoning skills to improve my situation. I apply the theory of marginal gains – that I learned from the Book Atomic Habit by James Clear – in all spheres of my life, that is, even 1% improvement adds up and makes a lot of difference. I set on to keep my anxiety at bay and make my mornings more meaningful.
What is Morning Anxiety?
Healthline defines morning anxiety aptly: “Although not a medical term, morning anxiety refers to waking up with feelings of stress and worry.” The website also provides a useful list of symptoms of morning anxiety:
- feeling restless, “on-edge,” or “wound up”
- signs of a panic attack, such as tight chest, tense muscles, higher than normal heart rate, or difficulty breathing
- difficulty concentrating and finding your mind goes blank
- difficulty controlling the worry or nervousness
Ways To Reduce Morning Anxiety
Go For a Morning Walk
This one is a life-changer. The benefits of a morning walk are manyfold, I read a lot about this everywhere but didn’t realize the impact until I tried it. I love to walk and I used to go for a walk, but some time later in the day or in the evening when I had more time. Carving out some ‘me time’ in the morning outside felt just amazing, especially when the morning sun has just started shining and the cool breeze touched my skin to say “Good Morning”. I became addicted. Now I don’t miss it, rain or shine.
Morning walk is also the time when I am most creative and usually come up with great ideas. I guess I am not alone in this. Researcher, storyteller, and writer Brené Brown writes in her book Rising Strong about her love for a walk: “I do my best thinking while I’m walking alone. That is when I sort and organize my thoughts. Even if I took a walk with a friend earlier, I still carve out time to walk alone.” I do the same too.
However, if you prefer to walk with someone, go ahead and do so. I usually don’t have time for a long walk in the morning, so I carve out a 30-minute walk. If you are hard-pressed for time, see if you can manage at least 10 minutes to walk around your block. I am fortunate to have a forest nearby, but if you don’t have a scenic trail, or even a park near you, don’t fret, just a few minutes around your neighborhood is also fine. But just remember to go out and move.
Write in a Journal
Writing a journal in the morning could be therapeutic and can help reduce stress. When I started writing a journal, I kept it for bedtime. However, it didn’t work, most days I felt lazy or tired, or uninspired. I switched to writing in the morning right before I started work and it does wonders. It allows me to pause and reflect on my morning, my day before, and lets me express gratitude towards something simple like the morning sun or the smell of my tea, or the blooming roses in my garden.
I must confess though, I have tried different options of journaling, without much success until I tried Vertellis Chapters. I usually do not endorse anything and I also do not have any affiliation with them. It’s just that I find the prompts for writing in this journal amazing. If you can’t or don’t want to buy anything, you could still follow their Instagram account to read some of the prompts.
Sit Down With a Cuppa
Most of the time we are rushing in the morning to reach somewhere or accomplish something, so sitting down with a cup of tea or coffee or your favorite drink might seem a luxury and also brings in guilt. But self-care is essential. You deserve it. Remember how in the airplanes we are advised to put the oxygen masks on us first before we help children or others?
A recent video that I watched on the Headspace app by Dr. Sahar Yousef explains: “Let’s say you decide that something is in fact stressful, whether it’s an approaching deadline or an email from your boss – your amygdala gets activated. The amygdala is the walnut-sized area in the center of the human brain that’s considered the fear and anxiety center. We all have an amygdala – this panic alarm that goes off when you need to fight, flee or deal with a threat. That’s how we’ve traditionally experienced stress…”
To combat that Dr. Yousef suggests break and self-care. She says: “Disconnecting from the world for a little bit doesn’t make you a bad employee, spouse, or parent. You need to carve out these chunks of time to send the message to your brain that no matter what chaos is going on, you’re still here and doing fine.”
Writer Dana Velden writes in her book Finding Yourself in the Kitchen writes beautifully about her morning tea ritual: “Just a cup of tea and the simple act of noticing whatever appears. Of course, planning and ruminating and strategizing thoughts can be a part of what appears, sometimes quite powerfully. And other times, even though it’s early morning and the day hasn’t formed yet, I’m already at sixes and sevens and restless as a baby Chihuahua. My effort, if there is any, is to not engage with these thoughts and energies. I’ll have plenty of time later to consider the state of my bank account balance or how long it’s been since my last dental cleaning or whether there will be rutabagas at the market for tonight’s dinner.”
Studies on MRI scans show that regular practice of meditation is associated with the shrinking of the brain’s “fight or flight” center, the amygdala. This article on Scientific American explains: “As the amygdala shrinks, the pre-frontal cortex – associated with higher order brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision-making – becomes thicker.”
When I started the practice last year sometime, I didn’t know the science behind meditation. I just wanted to calm my mind for a few minutes before I gave in to the chaos of the day. And it worked wonders. And if you think, meditation consumes a lot of time, think twice. You could do as short as a 1-minute deep breathing practice, or utilize your time in the toilet or shower.
There are many options when it comes to choosing the type of meditation. There is mindfulness, loving-kindness, zen, body-scan, movement, guided, vipassana, mantra meditation, and so on. Try different types until you find your style and comfort. Personally, I love to start my day on a positive note with a guided morning mantra meditation that helps me bring the power of my breath to bring in strength, focus on my self-worth, and find my inner peace. I also love the relaxing Buddhist meditation – Anapanasati as taught by Dr. Deepak Chopra.
Make A List of Things To Do
Writing down a list of things to do might not seem ‘beautiful’ to you, but list-making has serious health benefits. Neuroscientists say that our brains are depleting energy constantly when we try to multitask. List-making helps stop or reduce this to a great extent. Psychologist and author Dr. David Cohen explains the three benefits of list-making: “they dampen anxiety about the chaos of life; they give us a structure, a plan that we can stick to; and they are proof of what we have achieved that day, week or month.”
I am a list person and I have always loved writing down lists. However, list-making didn’t stop me from waking up with a major panic attack. I figured out why it didn’t help much was because I made the list in the morning only after I had the time after using the toilet, got ready, helped my daughter to get ready, prepared breakfast, perhaps even went for a walk while I am constantly interrupted by intrusive thoughts about pending work. This is explained very well through the Zeigernik Effect, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigernik, which means thoughts of incomplete tasks keep popping up than tasks that have been completed.
Further research by professors E.J. Masicampo and Roy F. Baumeister explains: “plan making can eliminate the cognitive effects of unfulfilled goals.” So I am still making my list, but the night before. This way when I wake up, I know whatever is going to consume all my energy in the morning or throughout the day is written down there in my list and for now I don’t need to panic.
Mornings can be busy and chaotic and we might not have the time to create an elaborate routine, however, carving out a little time is the key to bring some calmness in the early hours. Do not associate any shame or guilt with your morning routine. Just remember: “Every morning starts a new page in your story. Make it a great one today.”