In a time when novelty and variety may be especially fashionable, it’s not surprising many people could view the idea of sticking to a routine as passé. However, consistently performing healthy behaviors might be the key not only to a calmer morning, but to improved mental health throughout your day.
Multiple studies have shown that establishing routines filled with healthy habits is a great way to move more efficiently through your day while expending less mental energy and even willpower in the process. A 2015 study on the psychology of habits demonstrated that people may rely more heavily on habits when stressed, suggesting that forming healthy routines could help people maintain physical, emotional, and mental health during stressful times.
How Much Time Do You Have in the Morning?
When building your morning routine, it’s important to consider how much time you have. Even if you only have 20 minutes to spare each morning, you can use that time to promote good mental health.
If you have a very limited amount of time in the morning, try identifying your biggest pain points or stressors as you move through your morning rather than seeking to cram a variety of activities and tasks into a small window of time. Then consider how forming a habit could help you mitigate those pain points. For instance, someone who routinely doesn’t have time for breakfast might plan and prepare their meals ahead of time so that a healthy option is always available to grab on their way out the door.
Having somewhere to be first thing in the morning doesn’t have to mean limited time for a morning routine. If you are a morning person or prefer to rise at an earlier hour than most, you may have more time to dedicate to a morning routine.
Those who have close to an hour or longer to dedicate to a morning routine might take a different route when choosing which habits will best support their well-being throughout the rest of the day. Someone might decide to dedicate more time to a physical activity and go for a walk or run, take an exercise class, or practice yoga. Spending more time on meditation, planning the rest of the day, or preparing a healthful meal might also be easier to accommodate with this schedule.
11 Building Blocks of a Morning Routine for Mental Health
Morning routines can vary depending on individual needs. What works for one person may be burdensome for another. Explore the building blocks of mental health friendly morning routines below and start thinking about what elements you could incorporate into your morning to enhance your well-being throughout the day.
You’ve likely heard it before, but a successful morning routine is only as strong as the bedtime routine that came before it. Which aspects of your bedtime routine should you use to ensure the success of your morning routine? Try preparing what you’ll need, such as coffee, meals, or an outfit, the night before. Making sure your keys, bag, and other essentials are near the door, especially if you need to leave home first thing in the morning, can also help reduce stress and chaos.
A solid bedtime strategy often comes together with good sleep hygiene, and good sleep hygiene can help you get a more refreshing night of rest. Quality sleep, meanwhile, can help minimize symptoms of mental health issues like anxiety and even psychosis (while lack of sleep may exacerbate these symptoms), so your morning routine may only support your mental health to the extent that you slept well that night.
2. Let light in
Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning increases feelings of wakefulness. To clear away morning grogginess, try turning on a lamp or your bedroom lights, or take in some sunlight within the first 5 to 10 minutes of waking up in the morning.
Those who live in higher latitudes (father away from the equator) will experience more seasonal darkness. Individuals who live farther away from the equator have been shown to experience higher rates of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and sleep issues have been identified as a key factor in SAD. A morning routine may help individuals who experience more hours of darkness continue to feel awake each morning, even if the sun has not yet risen.
For those who routinely wake up before the sun has risen, blue light has been proven to help people feel awake in the morning. Using the right kind of light first thing in the morning could help decrease morning drowsiness and increase alertness more quickly.
3. Make your bed
It takes minutes to make a bed, but bed making is still a task which many people neglect. If aren’t currently in the habit of tidying up your bed each morning, you might want to reconsider. Surveys by Hunch.com and Sleepopolis have shown that the habit of making one’s bed are positively correlated with better sleep and an overall happier mood.
Now are people who are already happier and get better sleep also more likely to make their bed in the morning? Perhaps. But some experts argue that making one’s bed first thing in the morning is an effective way to boost your self-esteem. By completing a task first thing, you’ve boosted your own confidence in your ability to set things in order and may be more likely to continue that trend throughout the day.
According to a study published in Nutrition Reviews, dehydration can negatively impact cognitive function. As most of us wake up a little dehydrated after a night’s sleep, rehydrating first thing in the morning can help improve cognition. Dehydration has also been linked to fatigue as well as symptoms of low mood, including irritability and confusion.
While adequate hydration alone probably won’t cure mental health issues such as depression or anxiety, chronic dehydration also isn’t likely to make those conditions any easier to handle. Drinking water is a good way to hand yourself the energy to deal with the symptoms that come with many mental health issues.
When asked what might be one of the best things someone could do for their mental health first thing in the morning, licensed mental health counselor Nicole Urdang, MS, NCC, DHM recommends getting something to eat. “Eating something within an hour or so of rising brings your blood sugar level up and prevents crankiness. You’ve been fasting all night. Eating something, especially something with complex carbs, fat and protein, will not only improve your mood, but will give you an energy boost to carry you through your morning activities,” she explains. “Never underestimate the power of a balanced blood sugar level throughout the day to help manage your mood.”
Many studies back this claim. A study published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition found that those who ate breakfast daily were less depressed than the control group who did not eat breakfast every day. Those who ate breakfast also reported lower levels of stress. Another study found a link between the regular consumption of breakfast cereal and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.
Research also continues to tell us that while breakfast is an important meal, what’s more important may be what it’s made of. Boost the benefits of eating breakfast by incorporating some protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Nuts, yogurt, and eggs have been shown to support mental health in those who experience anxiety, for example.
6. Write down what you’re grateful for
Research shows that gratitude can increase an individual’s happiness, improve relationships, and enhance one’s sense of well-being. A study described in the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine demonstrated that even dedicating a short amount of time to gratitude each day can help improve symptoms for those who experience mental health issues.
To start your day off with a grateful mindset, try writing down three things you’re grateful for, and keep them present in your mind as you start your day. Even when you keep your list private, studies suggest you’re very likely to benefit from the practice of fostering gratitude.
Motivation plays a science-backed role in reducing sleepiness and promoting wakefulness. When motivation is hard to come by, getting out of bed can be difficult. If you routinely struggle with the will to get out of bed first thing in the morning (and you’re already getting adequate sleep), consider adding something to your routine that adds a spark of joy and motivation—something that helps pull you out of bed and boost your mood. This could be anything from an activity you enjoy, such as walking a dog, to a new type of coffee you’re excited to try.
Some individuals with depression may experience diurnal mood variation, also known as morning depression. This depression symptom can, in many cases, make it incredibly difficult to get out of bed in the morning. If you think depression may be preventing you from summoning the motivation to get out of bed in the morning, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional.
8. Avoid technology
While technology can be used strategically to enhance a person’s mood and mental health, smartphone use in particular can easily become a compulsive behavior that erodes rather than fortifies mental well-being. Research has found that problematic smartphone use is linked to increased anxiety and depression.
Consider avoiding or cutting down on the time you spend looking at a smartphone screen first thing in the morning. Doing so may help increase your mental clarity and sense of purpose for the day while shielding you from information about news stories, politics, or social media drama, which can often contribute to a low mood.
Morning meditation can help you center yourself for the rest of the day and has many proven mental health benefits. Even 15 minutes of daily meditation can produce the same stress-relieving effects in the body as taking a vacation. Meditation has also been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and even pain.
If you have time, try a 5 to 15-minute meditation as one of your first morning activities. Find a quiet, comfortable place to sit. Set a timer for the time you have to meditate that day. Then meditate. One popular way to meditate is to close your eyes and focus on the present and on your breaths. Many people also use guided meditations to get started.
10. Make a list
Writing a to-do list at the beginning of your day can help you plan what you need to get done and more effectively organize and execute the tasks on your list. Often, we have so much to do that we can’t hold it in our minds all at once, and the idea of forgetting an obligation can be anxiety-inducing. Take a couple minutes to jot down your goals for the day, and you won’t need to worry about forgetting to do anything on the list!
List-writing works by reducing chaos and lending structure to your day, as well as support for your memory. To write an effective list, start with your top objectives for the day. Keep it small, realistic, and focused–monitor negative self-talk and watch out for tasks that aren’t necessary or contribute to distraction. Organize yourself around your values and goals and seek to channel your best “you.”
11. Physical activity
For those with busy schedules, getting moving first thing in the morning is one good way to make sure they get exercise that day. As exercise is proven to have a positive effect on mood and can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, it’s something to consider prioritizing. While your physical activity can include a morning run, it doesn’t have to. If you’re short on time, even stretching and some jumping-jacks can give you a chance to get your blood flowing.
Exercise releases endorphins, which can help reduce stress and anxiety; in the morning, this can contribute to a sense of calm that helps guide the first part of your day.
Whether you have 5 spare minutes or multiple hours each morning, a routine can help individuals set themselves up for better mental health throughout the day. Choose morning activities that allow you to work with rather than against yourself. And if you find you’re struggling with mental health symptoms that interfere with your well-being and daily activities, reach out to a licensed and compassionate mental health professional.
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