Welcome to Am I Normal? where writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".

It’s there from the second I wake up.

A creeping fear, fluttering in my chest like a butterfly trapped in a glass jar.

The weight of a day I’m not ready to face sits so heavily it feels like a 200-kilogram barbell pinning me to the bed.

When my anxiety is bad, mornings are a huge challenge.

That familiar sense of doom is all-consuming as I wake with my mind racing into the future, a tumble of catastrophic thoughts assaulting my senses.

I call this my ‘morning dread’ and when it strikes, everything feels like a struggle.

I’ve often wondered how I can be so anxious before I’m even fully awake. Why am I hit by a wave of panic as soon as I open my eyes?

Beyond Blue’s lead clinical adviser, Grant Blashki, explained that feeling heightened anxiety in the morning can be caused by a combination of physiology and psychology.

When we wake, our body naturally releases adrenaline and cortisol – hormones associated with stress – giving us the energy we need to get up and start the day.

But if we’re prone to anxiety, that hormonal kick-start might feel like danger, leading to a snowballing of worrying thoughts.

“There’s a real risk for people with anxiety that they become hyper-vigilant to their own bodily sensations. They become very sensitive to the heart racing or chest pain or any niggles, and that can lead to over-thinking,” Dr Blashki said.

“Often what happens is people wake up with their mind in overdrive. All the issues of the day can feel paralysing because they’ve got all these thoughts arriving."

Jill Start wrestling with an alarm clock

“If they don’t have a good plan for the day, they may feel that they just can’t deal with all the stress, so they withdraw – they don’t want to participate. The problem is it can become a pattern that actually makes the problem worse because we know that participation in life, being with other people, is really important.”

I am all too familiar with that feeling of being overwhelmed by the day before it’s even started. You just want to hide under the doona and wish things weren’t so hard.

But Dr Blashki said the best thing you can do – as challenging as it may feel – is to try to get up and face the day, not lie in fixating on your thoughts or the sensations in your body.

He suggests setting an alarm to get up at the same time every morning and planning the day ahead the night before.

“Getting up at a regular time, even if you’re tired, will help you sleep better at night. It doesn’t have to be super early, it might be 9am, but just schedule a time and that’s when you get up,” Dr Blashki said.

“Then, commit to the day. You don’t have to plan too far ahead because that can be overwhelming but it’s about planning simple activities, small steps that will help you create new habits.”

Distracting yourself from morning anxiety by shifting your focus away from the feelings in your body and directing it to the external world, can be a helpful strategy.

Dr Blashki suggests putting on some music or getting out of the house and visiting a local cafe, park or library – anywhere there are other people around to distract you from the internal chatter.

He also recommends scheduling in at least one ‘achievement activity’ and one ‘pleasure activity’ at set times every day, which can ease the sense of overwhelm and create structure.

An achievement activity be might ticking off a life admin chore like paying a bill or changing your sheets, while a pleasure activity could be visiting a friend or relative, a long soak in a hot bath or taking a walk in nature.

"Don't wait for the storm to pass, learn to dance in the rain"

“Having commitments – knowing that at 11am I’m going to visit my sister and at 3pm I will work on my tax return – can be really helpful, particularly if you’re not employed, because rhythm and structure to your week are the best antidote to just stewing in your own anxious thoughts,” Dr Blashki said.

“You’ll often find that achieving tasks you’ve been putting off develops its own momentum and creates a positive feedback loop of feeling good. You get that sense of achievement and it helps create a cycle of being active.”

And if you do get up and face the day but the anxiety doesn’t shift, try to focus on what you have achieved rather than what you haven’t.

“There’s a saying, ‘don’t wait for the storm to pass, learn to dance in the rain.’ Don’t wait until everything’s perfect – because it’s never perfect –just go out and do what you can and be kind to yourself if you have a win,” Dr Blashki said.

“What happens with time, when you’re going through the motions you end up accidentally having a good day and you realise that you hadn’t even been worrying about things.”

Tips for managing morning dread:

  • Set an alarm and get up at the same time every morning. Don’t lie in bed turning thoughts over in your head.
  • Plan your day in advance. Schedule in one achievement activity and one pleasure activity for set times.
  • Be kind to yourself and celebrate every small win. You don’t have to tick off everything on your to do list.
Related reading: When does poor sleep become insomnia?

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