Why we get anxiety before work and how to handle it

Stressed mature businessman with laptop
Anxiety is often triggered by 'what if' thinking where a person imagines a worst-case scenario. Photo: Getty

It’s a scenario many of us will have experienced at some point. It’s a weekday morning and you wake up with a gnawing feeling of anxiety as soon as your alarm goes off – and it stays with you as you shower, eat breakfast and commute to the office.

Sometimes, anxiety before work can strike for good reason – a deadline or big meeting may be looming, or you might have woken up late. But it can also occur even when you’re facing a relatively normal working day, particularly for people who struggle with anxiety in general.

“Anxiety for me is horrific,” says Hayley Smith, who works in PR. “Working on my own, running my business can be difficult and sometimes unmanageable. Every day is difficult so it can be difficult to manage and prioritise. I love what I do, but it can be incredibly overwhelming and as we are growing, I feel a little more out of control.”

So why do so many of us experience anxiety before work – and what can we do about it?

“The morning is a time where many people will often experience the symptoms of anxiety,” says Nicky Lidbetter, CEO of Anxiety UK. “After a restful night’s sleep, we are more refreshed and ready to process information. Having relaxed so well in our sleep, we can therefore unfortunately, be caught off guard by the anxious thoughts first thing in the morning and a brain that is refreshed and ready to engage with these thoughts,” Lidbetter explains.

“Throughout the rest of the day we usually become more tired and hence have less capacity to explore these worries and stressors,” she adds. “An alarm clock may also interrupt our rest and jolt us awake, simulating a fear response in our bodies similar to an anxious fight or flight response if it awakens us during particular sleep phases.”

Sally Brown, a stress and anxiety specialist and spokesperson for British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy explains that a lot of anxiety is also triggered by “what if” thinking.

“People who experience a lot of anxiety often have a vivid imagination, which mean they can conjure up convincing worst-case scenarios of things that might go wrong or be challenging,” she says. “This can trigger black and white thinking such as, ‘I can’t cope’, ‘It’s going to be a nightmare,’ or ‘I hate my job,’ which further increases anxiety by sending the brain signals saying, ‘Danger! Danger!’”

“For some, it’s the thought that there is just too much to do and you will never get to the end of it – that hamster on a wheel feeling,” Brown says. “Of course, there are times when there is good reason for anxiety,” she adds. “It can be like an emotional smoke alarm that alerts you that something is not right, such as insidious workplace bullying or relationships that are undermining.”

Anxiety can be debilitating and distressing, but there are steps you can take to manage it in the morning.

Plan ahead

It can be useful to plan your day, either in the morning or the evening before. This doesn’t have to take long – spending five minutes writing down how you want your day to look can really help. “This helps clear my head and help prioritise and manage expectations for myself and clients,” Smith says. “I also set three key goals per day that I want to achieve so I feel I'm achieving something and not getting flustered. I still have a baseline anxiety when heading to work, but knowing I have planned and had some me time helps me to have a clear mind.”

Julia Portelly, a senior account executive, says having to manage multiple teams, clients and tasks can be hard work – especially if you have anxiety. “Something that also helps is clearing my inbox and creating that to-do list before the work day has even started. If everything is in order it takes so much pressure off. If I ever come back off from a holiday, I’ll usually make sure all 800ish emails are dealt with before the morning meetings start.”

Get up early

It’s tempting to stay under the duvet until the very last minute, but getting up with time to spare can help reduce anxiety and stress caused by having to rush. “Some people find it helps to get everything for work ready the night before, for example, bag packed and clothes laid out,” Brown says. “Often anxiety is linked to feeling out of control, so adding extra time pressure never helps.”

Avoid your phone

Many of us reach for our phones as soon as we wake up, either to check emails or scroll through Facebook, but this can make anxiety worse. Leaving your phone out of the bedroom can make it a calmer space. “Avoiding social media first thing may also help if you feel yourself constantly needing to check your feeds and find yourself becoming anxious as a result of social media pressures,” Lidbetter advises.

Get moving/meditate

Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol - and it also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that boost mood. Going for a jog or a walk first thing can really help manage anxiety before work and clear your head.

“If you have time to also fit in a short meditation session even better – the top meditation apps Headspace and Calm both offer lots of 10-minute sessions,” Brown says. “It can be hard to get straight into meditation if you wake up with an anxious mind, which is why it helps to do some exercise first.”

Get professional support

“If you feel that your sleep is disturbed or difficult dreams are causing you to wake up feeling anxious, it is important to address the underlying reasons for your anxiety,” Lidbetter says. “One way to do this would be to access some talking therapy support through your GP or charities like Anxiety UK.

Anxiety UK has a nationwide approved therapy service with therapists trained in cognitive behavioural therapy, clinical hypnotherapy and counselling all available either face to face or via phone or web. For further information contact the national Anxiety UK helpline on 03444 775 774 or visit Anxietyuk.org.uk.