Rather than, “Rise and Shine,” I’m a “Rise and Glow Dimly and Don’t Come Near Me” sorta gal. I am not at my best first thing in the morning. It takes my morning coffee before anything resembling shining happens. And there’s a really good reason for that: my body’s chemicals. They are not about rising and shining!
Before I go on, I recently came back from a very lovely women’s retreat in Costa Rica, and noticed that I was different first thing in the morning while on vacation. I started to wonder if I even needed my morning coffee. I would lay in bed in the morning for as long as I liked, get myself up, make coffee, then walk through the rainforest down to the beach where I’d sit for about an hour and just allow my mind to wander. Sometimes I’d go through some of my dreams, sometimes I’d simply watch the animals and the waves. Mornings were rich and meaningful and deeply nourishing.
So, this would give me a clue about why, when I am back in my home with my emails and my work waiting for me each day, I’ve gone back to “rising with resting bitch face” rather than “rising with delight.” In both scenarios I needed time to myself to tend to my strong introvert, but the quality of that time is quite different. Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health, suggests that our attitude toward the day ahead can certainly affect how we feel on waking up. This would explain the difference between my Costa Rica wakings and my St Louis wakings. Allison G. Harvey, Ph.D, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and director of the Golden Bear Sleep and Mood Research Clinic, suggests that waking grumpy does not necessarily mean we’ve had a bad night’s sleep, evidenced by the fact that I did not sleep well my first few nights in Costa Rica, but I still woke quite cheery. It’s the quality of our lifestyle and our attitude toward it that seems to have more impact on our waking mood than the quality of our sleep. This is a great reason to do our work around exploring core values and doing what we can to align with them in the goals we set ourselves for our day and for our life, so that we improve our quality of life. You can start to do this by reading this HeartWorks practice plan.
Melatonin: Take me to bed
I remember in my 20s that I woke in the morning, immediately opened my eyes and bounced out of bed quite happy. My lifestyle back then was pretty good, filled with work I generally liked, people I generally liked, and abundance of all kinds. I can’t imagine waking like that now, however, even though my lifestyle, while different, is still pretty good. (I suspect that the thyroid, adrenal, blood sugar and hormonal issues that have visited me in the last 20 years have something to do with that ;-)) In my research I couldn’t find anything about a correlation between age and the duration of sleep inertia, a period of time immediately after waking that lasts from 1 minute to 4 hours, when we lack momentum to move into the day. There is a correlation between using alarm clocks and the length of sleep inertia, as alarm clocks can wake us during a time in one of our sleep cycles when we are deeply asleep with the highest levels of melatonin, the chemical that induces sleep in our bodies. This is a good argument for waking naturally when the sun’s light wakes us up. Light helps to decrease melatonin levels and increase the chemicals we need to be awake, like cortisol. The alternative to alarm clocks, if we need to get up at a particular time, might be one of those apps that is designed to wake us up at an optimum time, at the end of one of our 90-minute sleep cycles, or a light alarm clock that wakes us with light rather than sound. Of course, ideally we’d be able to sleep until our body is naturally ready to wake up, but our modern lifestyle of parenting and earning money often doesn’t support this.
Cortisol: Something’s up…
So this brings me to the consideration of chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is one of our “fight or flight” chemicals as well as being a chemical that motivates us during times of “good stress” or eustress. Cortisol tells us that something stressful is happening or about to happen, but it doesn’t tell us what that thing is (it could be something good or something bad) (Graziano Breuning, L., PhD Habits of a Happy Brain). Cortisol is naturally at its highest level in our body around 8am: this might explain why we wake feeling stressed. If we are experiencing a lot of anxiety or rumination in our day, we might incline toward these difficult feelings while our cortisol levels are at their highest. This would explain why some of us wake feeling very anxious about the day ahead. Couple this with the fact that there is nothing to buffer us from anxiety (like our usual comforts of food, caffeine, socialization, etc) as we lay in bed, and our poor mind is really struggling.
What can we do to address this? One option is to, once again, find an alternative to the blaring alarm clock which jolts us into wakefulness by, as the name suggests, alarming us. When we are alarmed, our cortisol levels leap up because we move immediately into fight or flight. Using a gentler method like those I’ve mentioned above can help prevent the leap in cortisol that causes immediate anxiety or a sense of dread on top of naturally high morning levels of cortisol (the ol’ double-whammy). Also, mindfully acknowledging that our body is naturally experiencing higher cortisol levels in the morning, and that our inclination toward anxiety is simply grabbing the opportunity to shout a bit louder while cortisol is supporting the effort, can help us to get some perspective on the situation. It’s just our chemicals doing what they do 😉 Bringing self-compassion to our experience can also help. The HeartWorks Tending to Ourselves practice can be a good morning care package. In fact, allowing yourself some self-care time in the morning before you engage in the day’s activities can be a lovely self-compassion practice. Plan your morning to start with self-care, and the rest of the day will be much smoother.
Adrenaline: I’m about to die!
Adrenaline, or epinephrine, is another neurochemical that gives our body extra strength and performance. While cortisol tells us something stressful is happening, adrenaline tells us that we are about to experience a threat to our survival (Graziano Breuning, L., PhD Habits of a Happy Brain). It readies us for the kinds of super-human physical responses needed to survive something life-threatening. Some of us feel this way constantly – not in response to a threat to our physical self, but in response to a threat to our psychological self (our sense of self). When our system has gone into an adrenaline response because of a threat to our psychological safety, all of those physical systems of strength and performance have no outlet. We can feel wound up like a spring as all the extra oxygen and glucose needed to run away from a tiger has nowhere to go. This can lead us to feeling irritable and restless. The remedy for this is physical exercise, the kind that would, if we were truly in danger, use up all these extra physical chemical resources our body has just offered us. A brisk walk first thing in the morning or some other kind of activity that helps us to use up those extra resources can help us to avoid the side-effects of adrenaline in the absence of physical danger. In fact, exercise is a great antidote to stress at any time in the day as it reduces levels of cortisol and adrenaline as well as giving us doses of endorphins, our body’s natural pain killer and mood elevator.
So, to recap, you can start to address your early-morning stress by:
- reviewing your lifestyle for general stressors and doing what you can to address those;
- aligning yourself with your core values to improve your quality of life;
- waking naturally;
- practicing self-compassion and mindfulness;
- exercising in the morning;
- planning some self-care time in the morning.
I hope some of this has been helpful. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic – please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to chat. And if you’d like to explore more ways you can develop a practice that truly nourishes you and is tailor-made for your lifestyle and natural preferences, maybe we can travel together for a while in my Radical Emergent Self-Wisdom Mentoring program. I’d love to journey with you for a bit! And, here’s a tip: I researched and wrote this article for a wonderful mentoring client I’ve been traveling with. I could be writing neat stuff for you too!
- Somatic Self-Compassion Tree of Practices and Neurochemicals - May 2, 2021
- Podcast Episode 9: Favorite Things on my Morning Walk - January 27, 2021
- Podcast Episode 8: Slow News Days and Companioning the Neutral - January 22, 2021
- Podcast Episode 7: Self-Care as the Shit Hits the Fan - January 6, 2021
- Podcast Episode 6: Highly Sensitive Person’s Guide to Anxiety, Isolation, and Quarantine - January 5, 2021