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Handling the 'OCD Hangover'

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

Mornings can be bad if you have OCD. Have you woken to a feeling of dread and acute anxiety whilst being battered by intrusive thoughts? You aren’t the only one and you might be surprised to hear that there may be a biological reason for this!

When we conducted an informal survey of our client population, there was an approximate 50/50 split between finding the mornings or the evenings more difficult. Suffice to say, it is likely that up to 50% of people with OCD have experienced morning dread.

Whatever stage of your recovery, it might be helpful to know that your morning struggle isn’t a sinister sign that something is very wrong. Instead, it may have more to do with endocrinology (study of hormones). It has been shown that there is a spike in cortisol levels during the first 30-45 minutes that you are awake. This phenomenon is intended to get you up and ready for the day and is known as the Cortisol Awakening Response or CAR*. This naturally occurring ‘stress hormone’ is released from your adrenals during stressful situations but also plays a role in other bodily functions such as blood pressure or immune function. In the morning it is intended to kickstart your daily activity but it can also kickstart your fight or flight response and can be pretty unwelcome, just after you’ve woken up. In those of us with long term anxiety conditions, OCD included, cortisol can exist in higher and more prolonged levels, contributing further to an anxiety over-response and a nasty sense of dread. So here are some suggestions for combatting this hormonal imbalance?

  1. Try not to lie there thinking. Get up as soon as you can and start getting on with your day. Resist that urge to put your head under the covers and avoid the world!

  2. Remember to use helpful self-talk, such as, ‘This is to be expected’, ‘I’m allowed to feel anxious in the morning’, ‘This will pass’, ‘This is likely to be a natural bodily response’. Accepting the anxiety is key because if you struggle or fight with it, things will only get worse.

  3. Use anxiety management techniques. No deep breaths. Instead, breathe in shallowly and a long breath out for a count of 8. Or try box breathing: in for 4, hold for 4, out for 4, hold for 4. Move your eyes gently to ease any obsessing and keep your focus short instead of staring off into the distance.

  4. Aim to eat something. I know it feels like the last thing you want to do but something with refined complex carbs like oatmeal or an oatmeal bar will help. You’d be surprised. Perhaps keep a healthy bar of oatmeal near the bed. Then you just have to reach out and take a bite!

  5. Write a morning plan the night before. You are unlikely to be able to write one when you are anxious so have one prepared. Make it a mixture of the things you need to do when you wake up, then you have it there, ready to go.

  6. Get out and get some daylight if you can. During these darker months it is especially important to get as much natural light as you can, so sleeping in until midday won’t be helpful for your mental health. Walking yourself or your dog will have a multitude of benefits.

  7. Put some favourite music on. Music can be a calming, mood enhancing influence.

  8. Make exercise a priority. Set time aside for morning exercise, either outside or inside with one of the many free YouTube videos. Exercise helps greatly with managing adrenalin and anxiety. It’s helpful for depression too.

  9. Meditate if you can. If you find it too tough when you are anxious, try a mindfulness task such as mindful walking, eating or colouring.

  10. Text or message a friend for support (but not for reassurance!).

  11. Research cortisol lowering natural supplements and speak to your nutritionist or doctor to see what might work for you.

  12. Perhaps think about investing in a radio alarm clock so that you wake up to something musical or interesting and less inwardly focused.

If you suffer from the anxiey/OCD hangover, please let us know in the comments below. Which of the above works for you? Perhaps you have your own strategy? We'd love to know.


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Rebecca Potter
Rebecca Potter

What are the cortisol lowering supplements?

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