You’re reading First Thing, a weekly series on HuffPost UK helping to make your mornings happier and healthier.
Mornings can be an absolute slog – even if you’re an early bird. And they’re even harder on weekdays when you have to get up and start work within the hour. So are there ways to hack our mornings to make us feel energised?
Yes, to put it simply. Making an effort to create habits that help you feel more alert will guarantee a happier – and healthier – day. But firstly, Dr Emma Taylor, a clinical psychologist, says: “I want to be clear I don’t buy in to the whole cultural idea that mornings are somehow morally superior: we all have different natural body clocks, and if mornings are hard for you, you aren’t failing, you aren’t worse than those people who jump out of bed full of energy.
“That said, there’s an advantage to doing the difficult things as early in the day as you can manage, because it gives you less time to talk yourself out of it or for life to get in the way. The time before you do a difficult thing is stressful, the time after you’ve done it feels satisfying, so doing the difficult things early means minimising the stress, maximising the time spent enjoying your success.”
Here, we speak to wellbeing psychologists to find out the small changes we can make to our morning routines to help us handle the rest of the day. Obviously we don’t expect you to do them all in a morning (are you mad?) but some of these morning hacks may appeal to you.
Drink water before that morning coffee
Dr Nilu Ahmed, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Bristol, acknowledges how tempting it is to grab a coffee as soon as you wake up. But here’s a suggestion: glug a pint of water first, instead. “It helps flush out your system and keep your organs and joints healthy,” she says. “Drinking water has lots of known benefits including good skin and better mental performance.”
Go for a brisk walk – even if it’s around the block
In the morning, our circadian rhythm gradually moves towards daytime and gives our cells the green flag to get to action, says Lee Chambers, a wellbeing consultant. “When we go outside and the natural light shines into our cells, it triggers the release of serotonin, and suppresses melatonin, giving us a burst of energy and a boost in our mood,” he says. “The sensory experience of having the wind hit your cheeks, your feet strike the ground, and the sounds of the outdoors propel us forward, allowing us to reconnect to our coming day.”
“This might sound a little weird,” say Fay and Matt Doyle, who run wellbeing site This Expansive Adventure, “but earthing is when you walk barefoot.” It can be as simple as walking into your garden with bare feet and feeling the earth beneath you, they say. “There are years of studies into the benefits of this, and the idea is that when your bare feet or skin comes into contact with the ground, electrons are taken up into the body which release powerful antioxidants.”
Write down what’s on your mind
Mornings can be manic. Chambers says creating space to plan your day ahead can give clarity, allowing you to manage your energy against your schedule. “It’s also a great way of injecting a positive burst through reflection on gratitude,” he says. “Journalling allows you to express your true self at the start of every day, even when your brain feels like a jumble sale.”
A short, five-minute meditation
Morning meditation, “even just five minutes,” says Dr Ahmed, can supercharge your mood for the rest of the day. “Meditation releases endorphins that boost energy, and having a few minutes of stillness can help to manage the anxieties and stresses of the day,” she says.
“One way that you could do this is by paying full attention to your breathing,” says Dr Taylor, “while taking a long, slow breath in, holding it for a moment, then breathing out as slowly as you can. Try to stay focused on your breathing for three long breaths in and out.”
Therapist Charisse Cooke says mornings are the perfect time for sex. “The feel-good hormones that flood our system are healthier than caffeine and also longer lasting,” she says. If you live with a partner, Cooke says before starting work or leaving home, couples are encouraged to give each other a 30-second hug – “add in a snog for extra points” – as this calms our nervous systems so we’re prepared for our day, feeling more confident and secure. And if you’re flying solo, a little self-pleasure will achieve plenty of the same positives.
“The feel-good hormones that flood our system after sex are healthier than caffeine and also longer lasting.””
– Therapist Charisse Cooke
Get some natural light
Fatigue coach, Pamela Rose, suggests getting natural light as soon as possible. Our eyes contain receptors that absorb natural light, she says, which signals our brains to tell every cell in our bodies that it’s now morning, and they should start performing their daytime functions. “This is such a great way to get your body performing as effectively as possible, and fires up all of those energy producing processes that will ensure we’re topped up throughout the day.”
Take a cold shower
Shirley Billson, an anxiety coach, says this strategy elevates your mood and increases your energy and focus. “Imagine your mind and body like a car with the accelerator pedal stuck at a constant state of high revs,” she says. “This is equivalent to your stress hormone, cortisol, running at a constant elevated rate.
“The cold shower is like suddenly slamming your foot to the floor and hitting 0-100mph in six seconds. When you release the pedal and step out the shower, it’s as if the pedal has moved past the stuck point and returned to its normal idle state. Your body can start producing calming serotonin and motivational dopamine once more. You’ll feel great.”
Leave your phone for at least 10 mins after waking
Jonny Pelter, founder and CEO of Just Ask Max, a digital wellbeing service, highlights a research study by Facebook that found 80% of us check our phones within 15 minutes of waking each morning. “As it can take a little while for our bodies and minds to fully wake, this immediately disrupts our morning with information overload from notifications, social media, email and texts,” he says. This establishes a pattern of distraction that is carried into your activities for the day, and can cause issues, among others, around prioritising tasks.
“Maybe give it five to 10 minutes after waking before you check your phone,” says psychotherapist, Somia Zama. “This will ensure that you are starting your day with a calmer mind rather then feeling overwhelmed with tasks you need to do that day. Maybe stay in bed for a few minutes and do some deep breathing to help calm the body so that you starting your day feeling relaxed.” Pelter takes it further and says to avoid turning your phone on or have it on ‘airplane mode’ until after breakfast – or 45 to 60 minutes after you’ve woken.
Jump for one minute
“This is one of the most underrated and easy exercise to keep up with physical and mental health,” says performance coach, Alex Kergall. “It builds up your core strength and releases endorphin. Endorphins reduce your sensation of pain, increase relaxation and boost your body’s immune system. It also helps releasing dopamine, the ‘happy hormone’.”
Write down your three ‘non-negotiables’ for the day
Kergall says being focused in the morning on what you want to achieve during the day will generates clarity. Write down three things you want to achieve. “At the end of your day, you will feel satisfaction because you have done what you wanted to do. This will increase your self-confidence and allow you to build up your mental strength.”
Oh and… do a morning workout
It’s an obvious one, but we can’t leave it out because the benefits are huge, says Dr Ahmed. “An early morning workout will charge up your energy levels, and sets you up for the rest of the day. Science has shown it helps with weight loss by enhancing metabolism, and it improves your mental health.”
If you’re not up for a workout, Zaman suggests doing light stretches, instead. Quite simply, when we exercise, we get blood circulating and Seratonin (happy hormones) flooding the body. which will make you feel happier. “Whilst doing exercises, visualise being in a place you feel safe; again, this calms the nervous system and help you start your morning on a positive footing,” says Zaman.
First Thing is a weekly series on HuffPost UK Life giving you tips and advice on how to enjoy your mornings. Whether you’re an early bird or night owl, starting your day off right will make for a happier and healthier day. We’ll be sharing exercise advice, nutrition guidance, as well as ideas on forming new habits. (And no, the answer to a productive morning isn’t just setting an alarm for 5am!)