How to Stop Morning Anxiety

Jun 13, 2023

Do you wake up into a panic or notice your intrusive thoughts and anxiety are worse first thing in the morning? There may be a reason for that!

Cortisol is a hormone that plays a crucial role in our body's stress response system. It is often referred to as the "stress hormone" because it is released in response to stress, anxiety, or fear. 

Cortisol is released in response to stress, whether it is physical or emotional stress. This hormone helps our body prepare for the "fight or flight" response, which is a survival mechanism that enables us to respond quickly to perceived danger. When cortisol levels are high, our body goes into a heightened state of alertness, which can cause feelings of anxiety or nervousness.

One of the primary functions of cortisol is to help us wake up in the morning. The brain sends a signal to the adrenal gland to release cortisol into the bloodstream shortly before we wake up. This cortisol release helps us feel alert and energized and prepares us for the day ahead.

Here is a graph of cortisol’s typical fluctuation throughout the day.

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Note that this is regulated by our natural circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle so the times themselves may show up differently for you.

As you can see, cortisol levels fluctuate throughout the day, peaking in the morning and gradually declining throughout the day. This is normal and healthy! 

However, for some people, particularly those with OCD or anxiety, this increase in cortisol levels can lead to feelings of anxiety or heightened stress levels. This can be responsible for that spike of symptoms and thoughts you seemingly wake up into!

People with anxiety disorders may have a heightened sensitivity to the effects of cortisol on their body. This means that even small increases in cortisol levels can trigger feelings of anxiety or panic. 

So what can we do about it?

As you see in the chart- our bodies typically do a great job clearing that cortisol from our system throughout the day.

We naturally produce other hormones that help regulate and counteract these cortisol levels. These are largely triggered by our natural daily processes such as movement, eating food, and drinking water. 

Which is why I always tell people one of the BEST things they can do for their OCD or anxiety first thing in the morning is have a glass of water. 

Water is ESSENTIAL for regulating cortisol levels. Our bodies perceive dehydration as a stressor which leads to an increase in cortisol levels and we tend to be dehydrated when we first wake up. 

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism found that dehydration can increase cortisol levels by up to 30%. Which means drinking water first thing in the morning can help to reduce the stress response and promote a more balanced cortisol rhythm.

It is important to note that drinking water alone cannot eliminate chronic stress or an underlying condition such as OCD or anxiety but it sure can help us with that morning spike. We still have to do the work, such as Exposure and Response Prevention therapy, in order to truly decrease our OCD overall.

Other factors can contribute to morning anxiety, such as poor sleep quality or caffeine intake. We will be talking about these more! Stay tuned! 

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