Updated: Feb 1
Until a couple of years ago, my mornings were not relaxing. In fact, I'd go as far as to say they were stressful. I would set my alarm for around 6.15am, drag myself out of bed after a couple of snoozes (because I was always exhausted), check my emails on my phone, jump in the shower, do my hair and make up, run out of the house (as I would be running late for my self-imposed start time), sit in traffic on the M25 for an hour, before getting to my desk. Which was where I proceeded to drink lots of coffee and eat my breakfast whilst responding to emails. It's exhausting just writing it.
It took me a long time to really look at my mornings and when I did, I wondered whether they were doing me more harm than good. For many years I thought there was no other way. I thought I was efficient. I mean, I had to start work early as I had way too much to do, I had to live in London for my social life, and obviously making myself 'presentable' was more important than sitting down to a balanced breakfast...
What I have come to realise is that I was starting my day in a way which said to my body - "be on high alert, there's danger afoot". Not physical danger of course, but the 21st century kind - the low level continuous stressors which create the same reaction in the body as being close to a man-eating lion would. From being 'switched on' to emails at 6.30am, to the fear of getting behind at work, to the frustration of the traffic, to the caffeine. It all told my nervous system to be in a high-vigilance state. As I say, certainly not a relaxing start to the day.
If you can relate to this, I hope that lockdown has brought you some respite. For those who are able to work from home, losing the commute has been the stuff of dreams (especially now the kids are back at school for the parents out there). In theory, there's more time to sleep, or have a proper breakfast at a proper table. However there are downsides to working from home too. Back to back online meetings are draining, colleagues expect you to be continuously available and it can be all too easy for that morning time to start getting squeezed.
The power of a morning routine
I believe that a positive morning routine has the power to transform your day and your long term health. If you start your day in the same kind of way I did for 15 years (whether that's at home or in the office) your body will find it hard to come down from it's state of stress. It will start over-producing stress hormones which make your heart rate soar, your brain hyper alert and your blood sugar spike (1). This is a fine state to be in when you need to escape danger, but not so much for your average working day. It takes a massive toll on the body and often leads to us making poor choices around food, sleep and exercise (2). Importantly, it also makes us less productive - so if being effective at work is your ultimate ambition for the day, taking time for self care in the morning could be of paramount importance (3). If you can start your day in a relaxed way - one which actively turns on the 'rest and digest' side of the nervous system - you will be much more capable of dealing with stress when it comes in the middle of the day. You might be able to take a moment to pause before reacting, or know to walk away from something. You will have a sense of perspective that allows you to make better decisions.
My morning goal is to strengthen my nervous system, so that I am less vulnerable to stress and feel more in control during the day. Every day I start by writing in a journal as a way of releasing my whirring thoughts onto the page, then I meditate, do some stretching and finally I sit down to a healthy breakfast with my husband. My routine takes no longer than an hour but it makes all the difference. I choose to make time for it by getting up earlier and I go to bed earlier to compensate. I feel calmer, more positive and I am SO much more productive as a result. I'm not suggesting it cures all - I still have awful days - but I have less of them now and everything is easier to handle than it was before.
Building a morning routine that works for you
1. First things first, what is your intention?
Are you trying to build resilience to stress? Be as effective as you can be at work? Be able to balance work and family time? Make better food and lifestyle choices? Whatever it is, set your intention, so you know what you're aiming for.
2. Get clear on the activities which will not help you and build strategies to avoid them.
For example if you are looking to build resilience to stress, scrolling through social media or emails first thing is probably not a good idea. Try leaving your phone out of your room at night, or putting it on airplane mode, and setting yourself a 1 hour phone-free target in the morning. Or if you are looking to make better diet choices, make sure the food you are avoiding is not easily grabbed on the mornings where you haven't got the time - hide it or remove it from the house.
3. Introduce activities which help you meet your intention
There are so many options and the important thing is to make it work for you, but here are some ideas to get you going:
Make drinking a glass of water the first thing you do. Yes even before the caffeine! Being well hydrated is vital for good energy levels and healthy immune function (4).
When the alarm goes off, don't jump out of bed. Stretch, yawn, blink. Allow yourself to 'come-to' naturally.
Prep breakfasts ahead so you know you'll always have something nutritious to eat, even if you can't get out of that early meeting. Overnight oats, chia puddings or frittatas are a great choice for this.
Get morning light if you increase your exposure to white light, which we get from the sun, vs the blue light we get from devices, it can significantly improve your alertness, mood and visual focus (5). Over time, this practice can also improve your melatonin cycle, which will help you get better sleep. If you'd like to hear more from me about how to regulate your sleep cycle check out my blog Who Has the Secret to Good Sleep - The Owl or the Lark.
Build in time for moving your body. Sometimes, the best feeling will come from getting your heart rate going so try 10 minutes of HIIT style exercises. Other times, it will need to be slower and more relaxing so try 10 minutes of stretching or yoga.
Try writing or deep belly breathing if you find your mind is racing in the mornings.
Learn something through reading. Take just 10 minutes each day to read that book that's been sitting on your bedside table for months.
The important thing to remember is that taking just 10 minutes to yourself can have a positive impact on how you feel for the rest of the day. So if your mornings are filled with noisy children and trying to get everyone in order, perhaps try getting up 10 minutes earlier than the kids or tag teaming with your partner. Small changes matter and once you build them into your routine for a few weeks, they start to become instinctive.