Life begins each morning. — Joel Olsteen
For a great portion of my life, mornings were the worst part of my day.
Wake up. Go to school.
Wake up. Go to class.
Wake up. Go to work.
Mornings were the start to a day filled mostly with stuff I didn’t want to do. When I thought things couldn’t possibly be worse, anxiety came knockin’ at my door and decided to stay for a while.
That’s when my mornings really started sucking.
I would wake up in a haze just as tired as the night before. My first thoughts were fearful — praying that the lump in my throat and heaviness in my chest would stay away. But the fear of feeling anxious usually just brought about the very symptoms I was fearing.
It was a vicious cycle.
I remember rolling over and throwing a pillow on my face, screaming into it thinking this was how I would be spending the rest of my life.
At the time, I had been reading a lot of self-improvement books (shocker, I know). Books by Sam Harris, Tim Ferriss, and Tony Robbins cluttered my nightstand. I had to do something, and reading those gave me the motivation to finally start making some changes.
I didn’t need any advice to “own the day”. I just needed something to ease my anxiety and get me out of bed. And for once, I wanted to wake up happy, if only that were possible.
Looking at my old morning “routine” — it was a joke
Alarm goes off.
Alarm goes off 9 minutes later.
Alarm goes off 8 minutes later.
After begrudgingly convincing myself I needed to wake up, I’d roll out of bed like a zombie, do bathroom things, shower, and sprint out the door for work.
From the moment I woke up I was fighting the clock, which only made me feel rushed and more anxious. The way I approached my mornings was erratic at best and only fed my existing stress and anxiety.
There was nothing routine about it.
The Benefits of a REAL Morning Routine
Contrary to popular belief, mornings don’t have to suck. Having your own morning routine can massively reduce anxiety (at least it certainly did for me). It’s like the magic pill you wish your doctor would give you, except this actually exists.
Like any curious and internet-savvy person my age, I listened to Tim Ferriss who introduced me to the Five Minute Journal. I figured journaling in the morning would be an easy first change to make, so I went for it...and it worked.
I took five extra minutes each morning every day for a week to settle and focus my thoughts while writing them down. After a few days, I noticed I felt a good bit better.
That got me thinking, “what else could I do to help deal with my morning anxiety?”
After a few months of trial and error, I landed on a formula that worked wonders for me. Instead of dreading mornings, I actually began looking forward to them.
The best part? It takes less than 15 minutes each day.
To start tackling your morning anxiety, all you need is a pen, a piece of paper, and a desire to wake up happy again.
First, Wake Up Earlier
Estimated amount of time: N/A
One of the major contributors to waking up anxious is the fear of being late. You’ve got things to do and places to be, and when you snooze as many times as I did, that fear becomes reality.
This leads to rushing around in the morning from the moment you step out of bed.
Instead, try waking up an hour earlier. You don’t have to set your alarm for 5 or even 6 am. Just one hour earlier from your normal “oh shit, gotta go” time will do.
Use this time to focus on you. Practice actually waking up and easing into the day. Do things you usually wouldn’t have time for. Things like enjoying breakfast, reading, or going for a morning jog.
Your first attempt will probably feel weird. You won’t be used to all the extra time. But you know what? I bet it also feels amazing not rushing out the door every morning.
Second, Don't Check Your Phone
Estimated amount of time: N/A (you might actually gain some time back)
99% of the population wakes up and checks their phones first thing in the morning.
Don't do this.
Checking your phone for messages, emails, or Facebook notifications is essentially taking a massive gamble with your mood for the entire morning. One bad message, one frantic email, or one gut-wrenching notification is all it takes to throw your mind into an anxious tailspin.
I used to be guilty of checking my email until one day an unhappy customer completely derailed my morning. I took the gamble and lost. I've since realized that doing this every morning simply isn't worth the mental risk.
It's much better to not check your phone and wake up on your own terms instead of someone else's.
If you use your phone as an alarm, simply reach over, turn the alarm off, then set it aside.
Be the 1%.
Next, Take a Couple of Deep Breaths
Estimated amount of time: 30 seconds
For the longest time, I’d wake up in the morning and be instantly bombarded with an array of intrusive and wildly anxious thoughts. This was my baseline and how I became used to starting my days.
But, a few years ago I started taking a few deep breaths first thing upon waking which completely changed my state of mind. By deliberately ignoring the anxious thoughts and instead focusing on my breath, I was able to clear my mind and provide a surge of fresh air to my oxygen-starved brain.
It's sort of like pressing the 'reset' button on my brain - like, "Whoops, woke up anxious. Let me restart the device."
Today, I routinely practice a 4-4-4 breathing technique as soon as I wake up. All that means is I breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4, then exhale for another 4. I’ll do two to three big, deep breaths in this manner and then move on with the rest of my routine.
Then, Drink Some Water
Estimated amount of time: 10 seconds
Water is an essential part of life, yet some studies show as many as 75% of people live in a perpetual state of dehydration. When the body is dehydrated, it doesn’t function so well.
Your brain is approximately 85% water. Think it suffers when you’re water-deficient? You bet.
Chances are, lack of water alone isn't causing your anxiety, but it has been shown to be a contributing factor, which is crazy considering that water is FREE and readily available to everyone (at least in the developed world).
The body relies on stored water to do its thing while sleeping. In order to replenish those reserves, I started setting a big glass of water on my nightstand before I go to bed. Then, once I'm up in the morning I reach over and chug about half of it.
I noticed I felt much more awake and less sluggish after a refreshing glass of water. I eventually started adding in some Athletic Greens (not an affiliate link - they just legitimately work), which made the habit even better.
Estimated amount of time: 30 seconds to 1 minute
Gratitude works against anxiety by forcing your brain to focus on the positive. As anyone with anxiety knows, you’re consumed by negative thoughts day in and day out. Stepping out of that pattern of darkness first thing in the morning helps to get your day started on a positive note.
I started my practice with the Five Minute Journal I mentioned earlier, but now I just take a brief mental note of whatever I'm grateful for.
The key is to pause and take a brief moment to appreciate the good things in your life, no matter how small or trivial.
When you practice, try to add some variety into what you're grateful for. Everyone defaults to thinking about their spouse, family, and friends, which is great, but instead try bringing attention to some lesser-appreciated things in life - the stuff you rarely think about but would miss if it didn’t exist.
A few perfect examples of things to be grateful for are:
- The warmth of a hot shower in the morning
- The sound of a bird chirping
- Air conditioning in your home (seriously, go 2 days without it in the summertime and you will never take it for granted again
- The notes your spouse (or your mom) leaves you for lunch
Don't worry about writing your thoughts down unless you want to. The practice doesn't have to be any harder than it needs to be.
Make the Bed
Estimated amount of time: 1 to 2 minutes
I know, I know. Everyone and their mother is on the "make your bed in the morning" wagon.
This is because Navy SEAL Admiral Bill McRaven, during his famous University of Austin commencement address, lauded making your bed as a key contributor to finding success.
BUT, I'd argue that it's actually better for anxiety than success.
When you make your bed in the morning, you give yourself a small win to build momentum on throughout the rest of the day.
Small wins and mini-tasks are incredibly important to us anxious people. Our brains like order and completeness.
Think about the last time you felt anxious around the house. Have you ever felt the urge to clean? If so, the first place you might start (at least for me) is the dishes. They only take a few minutes to wash, and afterwards you immediately feel a sense of accomplishment.
That feeling feels damn good - like an unexplainable serenity - and then you usually feel motivated to start doing some real work.
Making your bed works the same way. When you complete that small task first thing in the morning, you're decluttering an area of your life while ensuring that at least one productive thing gets done that day.
As an added bonus, you're reminded by your accomplishment when you lay down at night in your warmly made bed.
Estimated amount of time: 5 minutes (more when you progress)
Meditation has been proven to have a positive effect on your brain and can help to dramatically reduce anxiety. Some studies show that it physically rewires the neural pathways of your mind and makes you a good bit happier.
When I first got into meditation, like many, I was skeptical. It was another thing I didn’t fully understand. And it was unbelievably hard.
I struggled sitting with my thoughts for 30 seconds. It was scary in there once I stopped to notice. If that was bad, how was I ever supposed to sit with them for 5 whole minutes?
Dan Harris’ book, 10% Happier, helped me to get over myself and change my perspective. He described the voice in your head as an “asshole” that relentlessly spewed useless thoughts and worries for you to get entangled in.
Once I began taking the practice seriously and sticking with it, I noticed profound positive changes in my anxiety. I was no longer instantly reacting to the negative chatter in my mind. Instead, I was observing and responding tactfully.
I started to change my viewpoint on myself from being an anxious person to someone who was just experiencing some anxious feelings - ones that really weren’t that big a deal once I stopped magnifying them. This made a huge difference for me.
The 10-day free trial that Headspace offers helped me to begin my meditative practice. Now, I just find a quiet place to sit or lay down in the morning, set a timer for 5–10 minutes, and let myself observe my thoughts.
Don’t knock it ’til you try it.
Finally, Get the Blood Pumpin’
Estimated amount of time: 5 minutes
Exercise soothes the soul, and it’s an extremely underrated tool for helping to heal anxiety. One of the best ways I've found to ease morning anxiety is to get out and sweat after waking up.
Go for a morning jog.
Do some yoga.
Do some bodyweight squats or pushups.
Whatever you have time to do and can do, just do (that’s a lot of “do’s”). You’ll find that it’s pretty impossible to think anxious thoughts while "waking it up" through intense physical exercise. Plus, it releases feel-good endorphins to help ease any stress you may be experiencing.
What I’ve been doing recently is taking my chow, Lexi, for a walk outside. There’s an awesome hill just down the street which we’ll sprint up together, walk back down, then sprint up again. By the time I'm done, I have little energy left to think about being anxious.
Intense is relative here. Plan to do something that you'll actually get up and do. Once you get into the habit, I bet you'll be surprised by how well it works.
That’s my morning routine in a nutshell. It seems like quite a few steps, but the first 4 are done before I even leave the bed. Plus, the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes.
Over the past several years, I’ve learned the things that trigger my anxiety and the things that help alleviate it. While assembling my routine, I took all of those factors into account and experimented until I found what worked for me.
Now, I’ll be honest with you - morning routines are incredible and they certainly can help to reduce your anxiety, but they are really freakin’ hard to stick to.
There are a few other things I do during the day that have made mine easier to adhere to and are just some good all-around habits to adopt.
1. Go to bed earlier. For obvious reasons. Sleep is an essential part of life that does so much more than pass the night. Waking up earlier won’t seem so bad if you hit the sack at a decent hour.
2. Set priorities the night before. I mentioned this above, but it really does make a difference (at least for me). By setting my priorities the night before, I don’t have to waste energy making a few extra decisions in the morning. Once I finish my routine, I can dive right into my most important tasks.
3. Exercise during the day. Physical activity changes your body and the way it operates. When I exercise, I crash hard at the end of the day and get some really awesome sleep. I often wake up feeling much more refreshed on days I exercise compared to when I don’t.
Creating Your Own
Copy and pasting this morning routine into your life might do wonders for you…or it might not. This list isn’t meant to be the only way to start your day. Instead, it’s a guide –a roadmap, if you will — to construct your own routine.
The activities I’ve laid out are what I’ve personally used to lower my anxiety, increase focus, and get the most out of my days. But that doesn’t mean it will work perfectly for you.
You should approach creating your morning routine by trying what I've suggested and then tweaking it in a way that suits your individual needs.
Test, test, test.
Find out what works for you then reap the rewards of a happier morning and improved life.
Remember, it took me months before I nailed mine down. I tried things I didn’t like and others that flat-out didn’t work, despite them doing wonders for people like LeBron James.
Who knew what worked for LeBron wouldn’t work for me?
Your ideal morning isn’t something that just happens. You’ve got to deliberately craft it. Hopefully, you’re able to implement some of the changes I’ve suggested above to help reduce your anxiety and take back control of your days.