A neuroscientist says a simple question can defuse the anxiety you feel when your morning alarm goes off
- Many people feel anxious when they wake up in the morning as they think about the coming day.
- But neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett said that morning dread could simply be your brain's response to physical discomfort, like tiredness, hunger, or dehydration.
- If you feel distress in the morning, she said you should ask yourself: Could this have a purely physical cause?
For some people, anxiety starts the moment their alarm goes off in the morning.
It's an experience you may be familiar with. You wake up and immediately think of all the things you have to do that day - fight through traffic to get to work, sift through a mounting backlog of emails, run errands - and suddenly, getting out of bed just got that much harder.But according to one scientist, that feeling of morning dread could really just be your body trying to tell you something.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and author of "How Emotions Are Made," says that emotions are essentially our brain's way of making guesses.
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"Anytime you feel miserable, it's because you are experiencing an unpleasant effect due to physical sensations," Barrett said in a 2017 TED Talk. "Your brain will try to predict causes for those sensations, and the more concepts you know and the more instances you can construct, the more effectively you can recategorize to manage your emotions and regulate your behavior."
So when we feel awful in the morning and we start to feel anxious, it isn't necessarily pointing to larger problems, Barrett said. There are all sorts of physical explanations that could be leading our brains astray.
"Your brain is trying to explain what caused those sensations so that you know what to do about them. But those sensations might not be an indication that anything is wrong with your life," Barrett said. "They might have a purely physical cause. Maybe you're tired. Maybe you didn't sleep enough. Maybe you're hungry. Maybe you're dehydrated."Read more: A New York Stock Exchange exec uses the '1-3-5 rule' to eliminate lingering guilt over an unfinished to-do list
"The next time that you feel intense distress, ask yourself: Could this have a purely physical cause?"
The ability to recognize and manage our emotions is what scientists call emotional intelligence, and it can help us succeed at work and in relationships. Improving one's emotional intelligence isn't easy, but Barrett said it's possible with a little practice.
"I am telling you that you have more control over your emotions than you might imagine," she said. "You have the capacity to turn down the dial on emotional suffering and its consequences for your life by learning how to construct your experiences differently."