You might rely on a morning routine you’ve had for years, or you might start each day differently. But whether you’re an early bird or a night owl, how you spend your mornings can affect both your day and your overall mental health.
The first step to creating a morning routine that supports mental health is to cut out habits that increase stress levels.
Insider spoke to Dr. Roxanne Prichard, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, Dr. Tom Rifai, an assistant professor of medicine at Wayne State University in Michigan, and Dr. Cynthia Geyer, the medical director at Canyon Ranch Lenox in Massachusetts, to identify seven morning habits that might be stressing you out.
Not preparing the night before
The best way to prevent feeling stressed in the morning is to plan the night before. Prichard recommends laying out clothes, packing your kids’ lunches, and even deciding what you want to have for breakfast the night before to make your mornings smoother, especially if you aren’t a morning person.
Thinking ahead can also prevent decision fatigue.
“I plan my day before going to bed,” Rebecca Soni, a swimmer who’s won three Olympic gold medals, previously told Insider. “Being an entrepreneur working from home I have a lot of small decisions I need to make every day, so I’ve found this planning helps to avoid decision fatigue the following morning.”
Not getting enough sleep
Not getting enough sleep can make you feel more irritable all day.
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Many people swear by waking up early to allow themselves time to meditate, exercise, or to do something they enjoy before the work day. However, experts agree that not allowing yourself enough sleep can make it harder to do other self care activities.
“Inadequate sleep pushes the sympathetic nervous system into over-drive, meaning that your heart will beat faster and you will interpret things as more stressful and overwhelming than they actually are,” Prichard said.
Neuroscientists previously told Insider that the average adult needs 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.
Experts also warned that traditional alarm clocks can wake you up in a panic. “This wakes you up with a jolt and can result in a surge of stress hormones,” Geyer said.
Instead of the alarm clock on your phone, Prichard recommends giving yourself enough time between bedtime and the time you need to wake up so you can wake up naturally. As a last resort, try a smart alarm clock that wakes you up gradually with increasing light or sounds.
Checking social media and the news right away
Try to wait at least 30 minutes before checking social media in the morning.
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It seems natural to check our phones in the morning for emails, the latest news, or to keep up with friends on social media. However, Prichard emphasizes that these behaviors aren’t setting us up for success.
“If I start my day with, ‘What horrid thing did Ted Cruz do today?’ ‘What species went extinct yesterday?’ That draws attention from where it should be for a smooth and rewarding morning,” she said.
Geyer pointed out a cyclical connection between experiencing a stressful event and news consumption.
“Those who have previously experienced trauma or violence may view themselves as more likely to experience future trauma,” she said, especially if the trauma was a result of their skin color, ethnicity, or sexual/gender orientation.
As a result, those people might feel the need to consume more news, which, in turn, can lead to post traumatic stress symptoms, she said. If news is triggering stress and trauma responses, she recommends limiting news consumption to about 30 minutes during the mid-morning and 30 minutes in the early evening.
Prichard agreed the best way to manage social-media use is to set finite periods in the day for checking it.
Drinking coffee right away
You might want to avoid drinking your morning cup of coffee as soon as you wake up in order to avoid a spike in cortisol, the hormone released when we are stressed, Geyer said.
“Cortisol has a circadian rhythm, with the highest levels naturally occurring 30-40 minutes after awakening,” she said. “Habits that increase cortisol independently may lead to a higher morning spike and contribute to more stress-related symptoms such as elevated heart rate and feelings of stress and anxiety.”
She continued: “Caffeine increases cortisol and adrenaline independently, and timing consumption with the naturally occurring higher morning levels may lead to a heightened stress response.” She added the impact seems to be less significant in people who regularly consume caffeine.
As a result, Geyer recommends drinking your coffee about three hours after waking up.
Skipping breakfast — or eating an unhealthy one
Rifai recommends not skipping breakfast, even for intermittent fasting. Anytime someone doesn’t eat when they’re modestly hungry or stop when they’re comfortably full, “they are putting themselves at unnecessary risk of stress,” he said.
He added that you should avoid calorie-rich, refined, and processed foods for breakfast.
Kate Martino, a physician assistant, previously told Insider that if you eat a diet high in processed foods, you might be lacking vitamins and minerals needed to boost energy and reduce brain fog. Without these, you may struggle to focus and your energy may be depleted.
“Processed and packaged food labels make it seem like they contain a lot of nutrients, but when compared with natural, real foods they are seriously lacking,” she said.
Not discussing morning routines with your family or roommates
Prichard said it’s vital to understand how other people you’re living with deal with mornings.
“An important solution is to understand and work with the circadian rhythms of those in your home,” she said. “My husband is not a morning person. Therefore, I try to give him a lot of space and time to wake up. Marital communication went way up after we decided not to talk about anything of consequence before 10 a.m. (for him) or after 8 p.m. (for me).”
If you have children, she recommends planning out their mornings the night before so that helping them get ready doesn’t add more stress to your own routine.
Not bringing moments of joy into the morning
“The morning routine doesn’t need to be all drudgery,” said Prichard. “Put on a playlist of favorite songs that get you dancing, or do a quick one-page inspirational reading in a motivational or amusing book.”
The best way to make your mornings easier is to do something that makes you look forward to them. For some, meditation helps them feel more calm in the morning. Others enjoy exercising, journaling, or practicing a hobby.
“My favorite way to start my day is a walk with my dog to the neighborhood coffee shop,” Prichard said.
Another way to bring moments of joy into the morning is through gratitude. Geyer recommends thinking of one person whom you’re grateful for in the morning. At night, she also recommends journaling about anything that stresses you out followed by three things you’re grateful for, saying it can help you sleep better and allow you to wake up more relaxed the next day.
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