Less stress is like kilojoule-free chocolate: something none of us would ever pass up. Especially if it translates to a morning without that heart-pumping, must-get-out-the-door-on-time panic. Feeling out of sorts will stay with you long after leaving home, according to a study by researchers at Ohio State University in the US.
In fact, it can throw off your whole day. Here’s the thing: a certain amount of morning stress is required. “When it’s time to wake up, your brain stops secreting melatonin—the sleep hormone—and gives you a surge of cortisol to help push you out of bed,” explains Dr David Posen, a stress specialist and author of Is Work Killing You?.
However, rushing around because you’re dealing with missing homework/late for the bus/tracking down a stray pair of heels can flood your still-sleepy brain with unnecessary stress—and that’s what’s most likely to throw your happiness levels way off kilter. Sound familiar?
Try these morning moves to set yourself up for a calmer day, fast.
1. Update your alarm
Just like waking up to a phone call in the middle of the night, a noisy alarm sends your body into fight-or-flight mode. The fix? Use a wake up light instead. “Light gives your body the signal to stop producing melatonin and start producing active hormones like dopamine,” says Kathleen Hall, stress expert and founder of the Mindful Living Network.
Since most of us wake up before the sun or with the curtains drawn, our brains don’t always get this cue. A wake-up light gradually brightens when you set it, allowing your brain to rouse in a slower, more natural way. You could try the Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock or the Lumie Bodyclock. Also good to know: sudden bright lights have a jolting effect so look into a dimmer switch or energy-saving bulb (they get brighter as they warm up).
2. Make more AM time
Whatever alarm you go for, setting it for just 10 minutes earlier will make a major difference. Hands up if you sleep as late as possible then scramble to get showered, dressed, fed and out the door (yep, us too). Unfortunately, all this rushing puts your body into a state of alarm, spiking your adrenaline and cortisol levels as soon as you get out of bed, Posen explains. Waking up slightly earlier will help take the edge off that rush and gives you a more relaxed start to the day.
3. Step away from your smart phone
Checking email in bed? It may prep you for that meeting, but it could also cause your stress hormones to soar. “You’re already wired into technology, which can leave you feeling harassed,” says Prevention adviser, psychologist Dr Nicola Gates. “Allow yourself to prepare for the day and not engage in tech until a set start time after your wake-up routine.” Hold off on Facebook scrolling until you hit your lunch break.
4. And… breathe
Oxygen feeds and invigorates the brain, getting your mind ready for productivity, while deep breathing can help lower cortisol levels and blood pressure. Hall recommends this simple exercise while you’re lying in bed: put your hands on your belly, breathe in through your nose for a count of four and let your diaphragm completely expand.
Pause, and breathe out through your mouth for another four-count, emptying your lungs entirely. Do six to eight of these slow, deep breaths per minute for five minutes. You can do it sitting on the train, too.
5. Embrace affirmations
Repeating an affirmation helps reduce cortisol levels by a staggering 40% during stressful situations. That was the finding of a University of California study in which participants focused on traits they wanted to embody (like “I am kind”), but any positive self-affirmation can act as a buffer against stress. Your phrase can be anything that’s meaningful to you, Hall explains, such as, “I am grateful for my life,” or “I begin my life today.” Got a pen? List a few values or qualities that are a source of pride.
6. Cut back on caffeine
Your morning latte comes with a kick (after all, that’s why you guzzle it) but that boost sends your body into overdrive with the release of adrenaline and cortisol. An analysis published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience showed that caffeine not only increases the amount of cortisol our bodies secrete but it can also stimulate feelings of anxiety and tension—especially during stressful tasks.
So, it turns out your takeaway at the station could actually be making your commute feel even more taxing. Hold out until you reach your desk: the best time for 9–5ers to have coffee is after 10am, according to US neuroscientist Steven Miller. Our cortisol peaks between 8 and 9am, so a java jolt is more helpful when the hormone starts to slide.
7. Eat a good breakfast
Morning munchers reported feeling 89% less anxious in challenging situations later that day, according to a UK study. The nutrients consumed help replace those lost in a stress response and fuel the body to handle near-future stress. “Breakfast is crucial to restore insulin levels, reduce stress, speed metabolism and aid cognitive function,” explains Gates. So fill up that muesli bowl!
8. Skip the TV news
Aside from the screen noise, the visuals attached with TV coverage are intended to make the event more dramatic, says Posen, which can cause your hormones to rise far more than reading about it or hearing it on the radio. Try using this time to meditate with an app like Headspace.
9. Embrace your commute
Yes, traffic is annoying and standing on a bus tends to make texting tricky, but instead of fighting for space (which spikes stress levels), view it as ‘me’ time. Listen to a new playlist or podcast, suggests Hall.
Physical contact also provides a boost of the bonding, happy hormone oxytocin, so think about lift-sharing with a colleague or take that train seat next to a stranger. “Even if you’re not communicating with them, your brain feeds off the proximity,” explains Hall.
10. Fill up the first hour
Morning people should be doing high-concentration tasks in their first hour at the office, like writing reports and meeting clients, says Posen. These tasks require more focus and creativity. Best excuse to leave that mind-numbing admin, right? Hall suggests writing out an action list in that time, too. Having a hard copy will help you feel more accomplished as you cross things off. Simple but effective!