Sunday, 1 December 2019

Start the day with a cortisol rush

Most mornings I wake into a state of anxious alertness and instantly begin to ruminate about the day ahead. I go out like a light at night, but back on as if the same switch has been flipped in the morning.

I’ve tried to narrow down the root causes of this unease over the years, initially blaming my poor ‘sleep health’. But I go to bed and wake at pretty much the same time each day. I don’t need an alarm clock so don’t suffer from the jolt of a rude awakening. I stopped drinking alcohol. I tried cutting out caffeine. I eat reasonably healthily. I get some exercise. These factors have all helped me sleep well but I still wake with a racing heart and head.

But I’ve found peace with my morning anxiety (is that oxymoronic?) as there’s a natural explanation for it. Cortisol, often called "the stress hormone" is at it’s highest immediately after waking, and the brain has recovered, recharged, and is ready to engage. Fighting it is futile. It’s just your brain doing what it’s designed to do.

The theory is that at the moment you wake up, your brain produces cortisol hormone to stimulate the hippocampus area of the brain (where much of our memory function takes place) as it goes about orientating you in time and space, and memories and thoughts flood into your conscious mind as your sense of ‘self' is reconstructed. This happens more quickly for some people than others, and I’m (un)lucky enough to be suddenly back into whatever mindset I was in before I went to sleep. Sometimes it can feel like I’ve not even been to sleep as the transition is so short, and the sudden flash of mental activity at the point of waking can be jarring.

So accepting that this is a natural phenomenon rather than a curse visited upon me, I use it to my advantage. Before going to bed I make sure I’ve pre-planned the first few hours of my morning, try to go to sleep thinking positive thoughts knowing that I’ll be launched back into them in a few hours, and read a list of things I’m grateful for when I wake - it’s a way to get a literal head start to the day.

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