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Less stress is like free, calorie-less chocolate—something no sane person would ever pass up. And new research suggests that the heart-pumping, must-get-out-the-door-on-time feeling that’s so common in the morning can stay with you long after you leave home—in fact, it can linger until mid-afternoon. Translation: A.M stress is enough to throw off your whole day.
A certain amount of stress in the morning is plain ole’ biology. “When it’s time to wake up, your brain stops secreting melatonin—the calming sleep hormone—and gives you a surge of cortisol to help push you out of bed,” explains David Posen, MD, Ontario-based stress specialist and author of Is Work Killing You? But flooding your still-sleepy brain with stress is like moving from sitting to a full-out sprint—hard on your body in the moment, and hard to recover from. If you start your day going 60 miles per hour, it’s more difficult to slow down when other stress triggers, like work emails, deadlines, and family commitments, pile on, he explains.
The solution? Warm up before you sprint: You have to ease your brain and body into the day instead of trying to jolt them awake. Check out these 12 things you can do in the morning to promote a less stressful day.
Wake up 10 minutes earlier.
Most people have the same approach to the morning: Sleep as late as possible, hit snooze until you really, truly have to get your butt out of bed, and then scramble to get showered, dressed, fed, and out the door. All this rushing puts your body in a state of alarm, spiking your adrenaline and cortisol levels as soon as you get out the bed, Posen points out. If you wake up just 10 minutes earlier, it’ll take the edge off that rush and give you a more relaxed entry into the day. (Don’t forget—if you’re waking up 10 minutes earlier, you should be hitting the sheets a little earlier at night, too.)
Resist checking your phone.
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Checking your email or social media might tell you what’s new in the past 8 hours, but it will also cause your stress hormones to soar: Your recently resting brain suddenly has to process all this information, sending it into panic mode in order to wake up faster, says Kathleen Hall, Atlanta-based stress expert and founder of the The Mindful Living Network. Not only does checking your phone affect your biological chemistry, but it also takes up time and potentially floods your brain with upsetting information, like urgent requests from your boss or sad news on Facebook, Posen adds. Ignore your phone until you’re on your way out the door, when your mind is more awake and your morning tasks are taken care of.
Upgrade in your alarm clock.
It’s called an alarm for a reason: That noise is meant to jar you awake. But, just like waking up to an emergency, an alarm will send your body into fight-or-flight mode immediately. The easiest 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 Hall. Since most of us wake up before the sun or sleep with the curtains drawn, your brain doesn’t always get this cue. A wake up light gradually brightens according to whatever time you set it for, allowing your brain to rouse in a slower and more natural way. Hall recommends the Verilux Rise & Shine Natural Wake-Up Light which offers soundscapes, so you can rise to soothing nature sounds as well as light ($50, verilux.com).
Steady your breath.
Don’t overlook the most basic of all stress relievers—breathing. Oxygen feeds the brain and invigorates it, getting your mind ready for productivity, Hall explains. Breathing exercises can help lower cortisol levels, slow your heart rate, and lower blood pressure, research shows. Try this simple exercise from Hall first thing after your alarm goes off: While lying in bed, put your hands on your belly. Breathe in through your nose for a count of 4 and allow your stomach to fill with air. Pause, and breathe out through your mouth for another 4 count, emptying your stomach entirely, repeating as many times as you like.
Do a daily affirmation.
Research from the University of California shows that repeating an affirmation helps reduce cortisol levels by more than 40% during stressful situations. Participants focused on meaningful traits they wanted to embody (like “I am kind” or “I am beautiful”), but the phrase can be anything, even a simple “I am grateful for my life” or “I begin my life today,” Hall recommends. The minute you feel your zen morning routine getting away from you, repeat your affirmation.
Stick to mood lighting.
“Our wake/sleep cycle is mostly influenced by light, and while light helps your brain wake up, bright, overhead lights also have a jolting effect, causing your body to release adrenaline,” says Posen. In fact, a quick transition from dim to bright light in the morning immediately elevated cortisol levels by more than 50% in a study inThe Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Keep the lighting soft until you leave the house: Take advantage of dimmer light switches or eco bulbs, which gradually get brighter as they warm up, and stick to natural light if possible.
Cut back on the coffee.
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Caffeine comes with a kick—after all, that’s why you guzzle it. But that jolt is really your body going into overdrive: Caffeine stimulates the release of adrenaline and cortisol, and actually blocks the release of a natural relaxant in the brain called adeneizine, Posen explains. (Check out what exaclty coffee does to your body.) A 2011 analysis published in Frontiers in Neurosciencefound not only that caffeine does increase the amount of cortisol our bodies secrete (increasing our biological stress levels) but it can also increase anxiety and tension, especially when dealing with stressful tasks. That means if you fuel up before leaving the house and are then thrust into a seriously unpleasant commute, your morning cup of joe will make the experience even more taxing. Try to hold out on your first cup until you get to the office and actually need the pick-me-up—that way your body has already energized as much as possible naturally. But if you’re highly stressed already, consider switching to decaf permanently, since that extra boost of cortisol might put you over the edge, says Posen.
Streamline your breakfast.
A 2012 British study found that people who ate breakfast reported feeling 89% less anxious in challenging situations later that day, and were able to deal with dilemmas 7% faster than on days they skipped their A.M. meal. The nutrients in your breakfast help replace those lost in a stress response, and help literally fuel your body to handle near-future stress, the researchers explain. “When you wake up, your brain hasn’t been nourished for hours, so you need to fuel it with amino acids and proteins to help wake it up,” says Hall. Make it easy on yourself: Keep fresh, frozen, and even (healthy) packaged breakfast options in the house. Fresh is always better, but grabbing a high-protein, low-sugar granola bar right off the shelf is better than giving up the search and leaving the house hungry.
Sit next to someone.
Whether it’s actually sitting down for a family breakfast or simply carpooling with a co-worker, try and sit with someone for 5 minutes in the morning, Hall suggests. “Having physical contact or even close contact gives you a bump of the bonding hormone, oxytocin, which can make you happier,” she explains. And it doesn’t just apply to people you know: Pass up the solo bus seat and sit next to a stranger instead. “Even if you’re not communicating with them, your brain feeds off the proximity,” Hall adds.
Skip the morning TV newscast.
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Aside from the stimulation of the screen and noise at an early hour, if you wake up with breaking news and tragedies, your body is going to panic right away, says Posen. If you like to know what’s going on, at least switch to the radio or the paper: The visuals attached with TV news coverage are intended to make the event more dramatic and realistic, which can cause your hormones to soar far more than they will if you just read about it, he adds.
Savor your commute.
Yes, traffic is terrible. Packed trains are uncomfortable. Standing on a bus is the worst. But instead of thinking of your commute as the time to fight other travelers for space—which obviously spikes your stress levels—view it as “me” time: Do an activity that nourishes your mind, like listening to an audiobook or podcast, or your mood, like listening to an inspirational speaker or new playlist, Hall suggests. Viewing the time as positive instead of negative will not only avoid increased stress levels, but also become productive hours, putting you in a good mood for the morning.
Make your first hour of work the most productive.
Morning people should be doing high-concentration tasks in the first hour they’re at the office, like writing reports and seeing clients or patients—tasks that require more focus and creativity, says Posen. So resist the urge to check emails right away, since it’s often a mindless, time-consuming task and you’re going to be giving away your most productive minutes of the day. Even night owls, though, should restructure their mornings: Hall suggests writing out an action list in the first hour you’re at your desk—emphasis on writing it out. The list will help you avoid being flooded throughout the day, and having a hard copy will help you feel more accomplished when you get to literally cross items off your list.