Anxiety, fear and dread are unwanted bedfellows
It’s important to develop coping mechanisms when afflicted by unwelcome thoughts
It’s normal to harbour doubts and fears – even without the added pressure of the disruption caused by a worldwide pandemic.
I don’t know how many people wake up with a sense of dread in the mornings. The number must be higher than usual at this time of disruption – but it happens even in the absence of pandemics, wars or economic collapse.
I don’t myself suffer from acute morning dread. Usually, I sleep until the alarm goes off and all I have to do is stifle the desire to throw the phone out the window.
But sometimes anxiety creeps in like a slow, dark tide. This is especially so if I wake up too early. Then my brain, without any prompting from me, chooses an item from its menu of things to worry about and starts to mull over it.
Anybody for whom this is a daily occurrence needs to have tactics to prevent themselves being made miserable by it.
One of the best I’ve found is to do a body scan which means becoming aware of my body from my toes up to the top of my head but in stages – toes, soles of my feet, ankles and so on – with two or three breaths in between.
I find this surprisingly effective, probably because its stages take my mind off worries and the body scan is, in any case, relaxing in itself.
If you try this and if you experience a physical sense of anxiety along the way – maybe in your stomach – just imagine yourself breathing into it without words and then move to the next stage. This is a form of acceptance which can help to lower the fear of the anxiety itself. If, though, you find this makes matters worse, drop that part.
If I’m within 20 minutes or so of normal getting-up time, I get up and, to quote the late Benedict Kiely, “face the cold steel” of the day.
Once I get going on my morning routine – exercise (tiny), coffee (lots) and work – the anxiety starts to fall away.
But why not use that time before getting up to figure out solutions to problems?
First, because those morning fears might have nothing to do what my brain wants to worry about. Maybe I had a dream that I’ve forgotten but that left me feeling anxious.
Or I’m low in serotonin which you get from food and which helps you to feel good. Or my body has delivered its morning shot of cortisol to get me going. Cortisol is also a stress hormone so if I add anxious thoughts to it, I’m not helping.
Also, night-time problem-solving can easily fall into catastrophising, a term coined by psychologist Albert Ellis in the 1950s. It refers to the brain’s capacity to generate imagined catastrophes large and small and to spin them up into a horror movie.
When you’re lying in bed in the dark catastrophising can surge, possibly because you are without your normal distractions and because you cannot actually do anything, there and then, about the issues.
Aside from getting up or doing a body scan I have a place I sometimes go to in my head. This is a house with gardens, a meditation room and, alongside it, a jungle with friendly animals. Sometimes, usually in the jungle, it sends me back to sleep. It isn’t real: if it was real somebody would have bulldozed it and built apartments on it.
When I start my day’s work, which I try to do within half an hour of getting up, I begin with the task I least want to do but which I have to do anyway. This is often the issue that was on my mind when I was lying there in the dark. The difference is that I am now up and can do something about it. Then, I can enjoy that sense of relief and even exhilaration that comes with tackling an unpleasant task early in the day.
Anxiety, fear and dread are unwanted bedfellows. If they come between you and your slumbers try these tactics. With luck they’ll send your uneasy spirits back to the shadows.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).