I know too well what it feels like to wake up anxious, feeling a nameless dread sitting on my chest like some heavy animal and trying to will myself back to sleep because I don’t want to be awake. I first had that experience as a teenager and it went on for so many years that I thought that was how life was.
If you experience this painful pattern, my heart goes out to you. And I’m happy to tell you that it can change. I almost never wake feeling that way any more, and when I do, I know what to do.
Here are six suggestions to help you salvage your day if you do wake up with the dread beast on your chest.
1. Resist the urge to escape by going back to sleep.
Chances are good that this sleepiness is being “sent” by a part of you that is afraid to be awake. If you are upright, you will be much better able to discern true fatigue from the foggy, “get me out of here” feel of anxiety-escape torpor. If you truly need sleep, you’ll know it after trying the strategies below. You can always go back to bed then.
2. Don’t lie there worrying: get up and move
It is nearly impossible to get out of a worry loop when you are groggy and half asleep. I can ruefully state that despite years of trying, I never once got up feeling better after lying in bed for hours ruminating. Do what it takes to get yourself up.
You can certainly ground yourself with a walk, but you can also access the benefits of movement with minimal effort in the house in your pajamas. Don’t underestimate the simple act of getting out of bed: research has shown any change of body position can help emotions shift.
Breath practice is the most powerful, reliable way I know to access the embodied state I call Loving Adult Presence. Combined with movement, even something as simple as a change of position, your breath can ground you in your body within a few minutes even if you are very agitated.
Try this one: sit with your back comfortably straight. Inhale fully, then gently exhale until your lungs are empty. Simply stay there until your body asks to breathe in. This might happen after three seconds or thirty. The length of time isn’t important, just that you wait until your body wants to breathe. Don’t push past discomfort: this is not a contest. Breathe normally for a few rounds, then exhale and repeat. Do this for five minutes until you experience a sense of well-being.
4. Access the bigger You that can be with all this
As you move and connect to your breath, you begin to experience the truth that you are the embodiment of Presence. These words may sound abstract, but the experience is not. For a reminder of the four steps to be with something in you that is anxious, click here.
Because we are human and we exist in physical bodies, we will always be feeling something, and sometimes it will be an uncomfortable “something.” But this only becomes unbearable if you are merged with the discomfort. If you can be with it instead, it is quite possible for something in you to be anxious, while you, from the bigger You, are at peace and aware that all is well.
5. From Presence, connect to something even bigger
Once you’ve moved and connected to your breath and to Presence, connect to the transcendent: to something bigger than you. Sensitive people are naturally spiritual, and you know what that means for you.
Whether you meditate, pray, chant, read something inspiring, pet your cat or your dog, listen to music or look out at nature, find a way to remind yourself that you are part of a much bigger whole. This is the ultimate perspective that helps you hold any pain—yours or others’—with compassion.
6. Complete steps 1 to 5 before writing or seeking support
Writing or talking to a friend or partner can be powerful interventions to rescue your day if you wake up anxious. But if you do try to process from a merged place, you will not feel better. In fact f you use up precious morning time without getting relief, you may feel worse.
I used to get up and write when I felt anxious. My results were unspectacular, but it was the only strategy I had. Once I discovered the powerful combination of movement, breath practice, Presence, and spiritual connection, I never looked back. Try these things and let me know how it goes.