While trauma can manifest at any time of day depending on a person’s triggers, Anjali Gowda Ferguson, Ph.D., LCP, a licensed clinical psychologist and trauma expert, notes that one possible reason it can show up on the morning specifically is due to an increase in cortisol levels (also known as the stress hormone). That heightened stress after waking up can exacerbate trauma responses and behaviors.
As for how exactly the trauma appears in the morning, it depends on the person. “Trauma is a subjective experience, and how we process and heal from trauma can look very different to the next person,” says Dr. Ferguson. As such, the symptomatology of trauma will also differ from person to person.
Below, Ferguson shares four common ways trauma can show up in the morning, along with tips for revamping your morning routine.
1. Scroll through social networks and compare
One possible impact trauma can have on your morning is the need to navigate social media. And not just for entertainment (we’re watching you, TikTok cat videos), but to compare our lives with those we follow. “If a child grew up in a home that experienced neglect or emotionally inconsistent responses where competence and performance were emphasized as a determination of value, [they] they may be more likely to compare themselves socially,” says Dr. Ferguson.
Social comparison, he explains, is a social psychological theory that suggests we all have an innate need to compare ourselves to others. “In some cases, we compare upwards [ourselves] others,” he says. For example, we might aspire to be like another person, or see that person as someone who has more. “In other cases, [downwardly] compare ourselves, that is, compare ourselves with others who are worse off than us”.
Both forms of comparison, adds Dr. Ferguson, can motivate behavior and mood. Used positively, he says, comparison can help motivate growth and positive change within ourselves. For example, let’s say his friend shares her exercise routine on social media, inspiring him to meet his exercise goals. Conversely, comparison can lead to seeing yourself as less than, which negatively impacts your self-esteem.
2. Criticize your appearance
Past childhood or adulthood trauma around body image can also affect how you see yourself in the morning (and all the time). “Body image concerns, which can manifest in many ways, can result from experiencing relationships in which body image was tied to self-esteem,” says Dr. Ferguson. “In cultures where promoting body image is seen as a way to succeed, emphasis can be placed on children/individuals to present them in a certain light. These messages can be sustained through social influences and can even reinforce themselves over time.”
Dr. Ferguson says this can cause you to care so much about your appearance that it consumes your thoughts from the moment you wake up and in every interaction throughout the day. It can also be a challenge to decide what to wear in the morning because you may feel like nothing fits.
3. Postpone tasks
If you grew up in a highly critical home, you learned to fear failure and criticism. Dr. Ferguson says he may have developed an avoidance response style, which is putting off or avoiding things he needs to do as a way to cope when he feels overwhelmed. That can include avoiding morning work emails or hygiene and personal care tasks, like getting out of bed and getting ready in the morning.
4. Push yourself to the limit
For others, unresolved trauma can manifest as over-functioning, meaning you push yourself to the limit by over-performing tasks, such as exercising too much or committing to too many dates. Maybe you start work immediately after waking up because you have a lot on your plate. Dr. Ferguson says that overfunctioning is due to neglect in childhood, usually when parents were unavailable or unable to meet a child’s needs. “Here, children grow up being parentalized and having to assume adult roles early in development,” he says. “These processes can continue well into adulthood.”
How to revamp your morning routine
There are things you can do to transform your morning experience. First, Dr. Ferguson recommends doing a self-assessment by evaluating what parts of his morning routine. Identify which parts do not serve you and clarify what you would like to change. For example, maybe you wake up feeling very tired and that affects your desire to work in the morning.
From there, Dr. Ferguson recommends setting some goals for your morning ritual. ask yourself: What do I want to get out of my tomorrow? If you could design it in an ideal world, what would it look like?
Next, identify any barriers that are preventing you from embracing your ideal morning routine. For example, going to bed late, oversleeping, being short on time, adding too much to your to-do list in the morning, or spending too much time on your phone in the morning can affect your morning routine. “Once you identify what is keeping you from achieving your goals, you can develop a system to address those needs,” says Dr. Ferguson. That may seem like setting a limit on TV at night to make sure you go to bed at a reasonable hour or giving yourself a 15-minute limit to scroll on the phone in the morning.
Lastly, work to heal the unresolved trauma that is driving the behaviors you want to change. Dr. Ferguson encourages contacting a mental health provider if he needs guidance and support with this process. “Are there certain relationships or patterns that you notice in your history that may have contributed to this response style?” she says. “Healing is being able to name the traumas and understand that overcoming them is a fluid and lifelong journey.” In other words, be kind to yourself and take your time.