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Morning anxiety and the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR)

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I wake up with my heart racing and my skin tingling. My chest is tight and my muscles are tense. My stomach hurts. I close my eyes but that only makes it worse. This is how I wake up almost every morning. I go to bed tired, hoping to sleep in on a Sunday, only to wake up tired at 7:00 unable to fall back asleep. My body is anxious and I don’t know why.

Feeling anxious in the morning is common for people with and without anxiety disorders, says Mayra Mendez, PhD, a licensed psychotherapist. While research on morning anxiety is limited, the experience is common, and putting a name to these feelings can bring some relief. 

As someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I still struggle to understand what I’m feeling, why I’m feeling it, and how to manage it. You’re not alone!

What’s causing my morning anxiety?

Thinking about everything you have to do in the day – from work to family to exercise – can contribute to the anxiety you feel when waking up. While thinking about the list in need of completing for the day can be stressful all on its own, a biological process known as the Cortisol Awakening Response (CAR) plays a role too.

Cortisol is known as the stress hormone because of its involvement in the body’s response to stress. Cortisol levels peak during the first 30 to 45 minutes that you’re awake every morning, a phenomenon known as CAR, which can cause you to feel more stressed in the morning. Cortisol is also known as the “fight or flight” hormone, helping you manage stressful or dangerous situations. During these stressful situations, the release of cortisol hormones can cause your heart rate to increase, your breathing to quicken, and your muscles to tense.

Although anyone can experience morning anxiety, those with existing anxiety disorders are more likely to experience it. Anxiety can sometimes be useful to get healthy individuals thinking about how to manage their day, but it’s much more likely to be paralyzing for people with anxiety disorders.

“The effect of higher cortisol further exacerbates physiological symptoms of anxiety such as increased adrenaline flow, increased heart rate, and increased blood pressure,” says Dr. Mendez. “For someone with anxiety, when cortisol levels are higher in the morning, anxiety is greater and interferes with the person’s ability to think calmly and plan for the day ahead.”

How do I calm my morning anxiety?

Finding healthy ways to cope with your stress or anxiety can help lower cortisol levels and regulate your body’s response to stress. Learn how to manage your morning anxiety starting with these strategies: 

1. Acknowledge your anxiety: Acknowledging and accepting your morning anxiety allows you to take steps in addressing it and improving your wellbeing, instead of fearing it and letting it ruin your morning (I’ve been guilty of this!).

Knowing there’s a biological impact can also make it easier to face, Dr. Mendez says.

2. Practice relaxation techniques: Meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga have all been shown to lower cortisol levels.

For example, a 2013 study on the effects of mindfulness meditation on 30 medical students published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand found a significant decrease in cortisol levels after the participants took part in a mindfulness meditation.

Try deep breathing or mindfulness exercises next time you wake up in a bout of anxiety (it can really help!). For example, try box-breathing: 

  • Breathe in while counting to four at an even pace;
  • Hold your breath for four more seconds;
  • Release your breath evenly for another four seconds.
  • You can repeat these three steps until a state of calmness has returned.

3. Eat a healthy breakfast: Studies show that high levels of cortisol can cause cravings for foods high in sugar and fat, which further increase cortisol levels. This creates a cycle that’s difficult to break.

In addition, low blood sugar, which is common in the mornings after not eating all night, can mimic symptoms of anxiety like sweating and negative feelings. This can perpetuate the morning anxiety you feel.

 To combat high cortisol levels and low blood sugar, and to break that cycle, try eating foods that contain magnesium. Magnesium has been shown to help reduce anxiety and it can be found in plenty of breakfast-friendly foods, like: 

  • Nuts such as almonds, cashews, and hazelnuts.
  • Bran cereals and other whole grains, like whole grain toast and oatmeal.
  • Bananas and avocados.

 It feels good to eat healthy, not only physically, but mentally too (trust me, I know!).

4. Try exercising: Getting regular exercise helps to regulate your central nervous system and can help reduce anxiety. While you might feel anxiety in the morning, it isn’t necessary to exercise in the morning (although this does help). Exercising at any point in the day has been shown to lower your risk of anxiety.

A 2020 study found that exercises that incorporate mindfulness can be especially helpful in managing anxiety. To help morning anxiety, try these exercises:

  • Yoga: Focus on the movements and the breathing. This will interrupt your negative thoughts for the moment and can help reduce anxiety, calm your thoughts, and relax your body.
  • Tai Chi: Similar to yoga, this martial art focuses on breathing and movement and can have the same benefits.
  • Walking: Research has shown that walking increases the release of brain chemicals called endorphins that stimulate relaxation and improve mood. You don’t even have to walk at a fast pace for it to have stress-relieving benefits. (This is one of my favourite ways to exercise because it’s so easy and makes me feel better!)

5. Get better sleep: Everyone should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night. However, that can be difficult for people with anxiety since stress, anxiety, and insomnia are closely linked – about 50% to 80% of people with mental health struggles have trouble sleeping.

Your body is more likely to produce cortisol when you don’t get enough sleep. In fact, many studies have shown higher levels of cortisol in people who experience sleep deprivation.

Establishing good sleep hygiene can help. You can try: 

  • Going to sleep and getting up at the same time each day.
  • Avoiding screens and caffeine leading up to bedtime.
  • Doing relaxing activities before bed, such as reading a book or taking a bath.

 6. Follow a morning routine: Morning anxiety can be paralyzing which makes it hard to get up and moving. Having a solid morning routine can help you get your day started and interrupt those negative thoughts. A routine can also help you feel in control which can reduce anxiety.

 Your routine should incorporate techniques that reduce morning anxiety like the ones listed above. For example: 

  • Wake up and have breakfast: Start your day with a simple, nutritious meal. Try oatmeal with fruits and nuts, which contains plenty of magnesium.
  • Exercise or practice mindfulness: Go for a 10-minute walk or meditate for five minutes and see the effects of regular exercise on your anxiety.
  • Shower and listen to some tunes: Take a relaxing shower after your walk or meditation. Try listening to some calming music or your favourite tunes before, after or during your shower.
  • Get dressed: Whether you’re working or schooling from home or in-person, put on an outfit you feel confident in and ditch the sweatpants. Do your makeup if you feel like it. Get ready for your day with plenty of time to spare so you aren’t rushing and stressed about time.

What’s the bottom line?

Morning anxiety is a common experience but can be managed and reduced. Lifestyle changes like eating a healthy breakfast, getting regular exercise, practicing mindfulness, and getting better sleep can all help to reduce stress and anxiety in the mornings.

Writing this article helped me get some perspective and objectivity about my own morning anxiety. I hope reading this article will give you the same.

Take control of your anxiety instead of letting it control you. And remember: you’re not alone.

Check out this article for more tips on managing anxiety.


  • Yasmin Missaghian is a freelance writer and editor from Ottawa, Ontario. She has a diploma in writing and publishing from Okanagan College and is finishing her English degree at Carleton University. She has written many articles for OptiMYz and its sister magazine, SILVER, and has poetry published in anthologies. She is passionate about mental health, diversity, and empowering women.

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