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Turning Monsters Into Sunrises: 5 Ways to Overcome Morning Stress

Jeff Shuck
September 9, 2019

Several days ago, I woke feeling refreshed. For a few moments, I let the sleep fade from my mind and reflected on my open day ahead. Ahhh! No appointments! What a great feeling. For a moment, I imagined everything I could choose to do.

Then, without meaning to, I remembered something I hadn’t had time to do the day before. My mind started running in front of me. A few other projects popped into my head. When did we need to get the new client proposal out? Did I remember to get a hotel for my trip next week? When will I have time to review the analytics from our latest Google Ad buy?

Losing the Day

I did something I usually never do first thing in the morning: I reached for my phone. Most of the time, I don’t even allow my phone to enter my bedroom, but for some reason I had placed it next to my bed the night before. I grabbed it instinctively and opened my email.

My distraction turned to growing stress as I read messages that came in the night before. My to-do list seemed to grow as my open time seemed to shrink, right before my eyes — all before I had left my bed. I went downstairs, poured a big cup of coffee, and sat down my laptop. In my mind, my open day had become a crowded schedule of obligations and tardy tasks. I felt pressured to get at it — whatever “it” was.

The Monster and the Sunrise

I was already lost in plans when my youngest son, Danny, walked into the room holding a piece of paper. He was getting ready for his second full day of school for the year. He looked bright and fresh. He smelled like a good shower.

I was about to dismiss him with a cursory “good morning” when he literally put a piece of paper directly on my laptop keyboard. He said, “I want you to have a drawing I made yesterday.” His enthusiasm broke through my growing stress.

I looked up. “Aw, thanks champ. What is it?”

“Well,” he said in his run-on, enthusiastic way of talking, “it’s a hero pulling a sword out of a stone on a hill and behind him a monster is growing.”

I looked at our brave knight. The monster behind the hero was round, orange, and kind of fuzzy. Before I could say anything, Danny noticed my expression and said, “Well, I was trying to draw a sunrise and make the picture all heroic and stuff and it didn’t work out. So I turned the sunrise into a monster. I made it for you.”

Bang! Instant perspective. In his one drawing, Danny had found the perfect metaphor for what I was doing. I had taken a perfectly good sunrise and with only a few thoughts created an imaginary monster from it.

My morning monster was all in my head.

Five Ways to Create an Optimistic Day

Through intention, practice, and work with my amazing clients and my co-leader Jennifer, I’ve learned that if I can take a half-step back from my thoughts, the monsters that seem so stressful to me are mostly imagined. The difference is found in the space — listening to my own thoughts before I necessarily believe in what I’m telling myself.

I’ve learned that a few simple daily practices can help me create that space so I start the day more optimistic, less anxious, and more open.

  1. Stay off the screens. It’s truly amazing how many screens we have all around us, all the time. We're surrounded by our computers, our televisions, and most of all, our phones. The first tip is perhaps the most difficult: Don’t keep your phone in your bedroom at night. If you use your phone as your alarm clock, spend a few dollars to buy an inexpensive clock to keep by your bed instead. Putting your phone in another room, away from your bedroom, literally creates distance that ensures the first thing you do when you wake up isn’t to buy into someone else’s anxiety or demands.
  2. Pick your inputs carefully. I’ve become pretty choosey about what news and social media I read and watch in the morning. I’ve learned that it is just too easy for me to react to something I see, instead of choosing the mindset I want. Try to give yourself an hour after you wake up before you turn on NPR or scroll through Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with media, and we encourage you to be well-informed about the world around you — but that doesn’t mean you have to start your day with it. A bit of quiet time from the news cycle helps create some space from current events and allows you time to reflect about the longer-term cadence of your life.
  3. Get outside. Have you ever had the experience of being completely stuck on a problem, only to walk outside and have the answer immediately pop into your head? Nature is an incredible, inspiring cure-all. I’m fortunate to live a few blocks from Lake Michigan. I find that taking only ten minutes to walk there and back does wonders for my soul. Whether it’s 80 degrees and sunny or 20 degrees and howling snow, a bit of time outside puts my day into proper perspective. Wherever you live, see what happens if you enjoy your cup of coffee outside. It’s a nice, simple reminder that there’s more to our lives than our calendars. Don't have time to get outside in the morning? See the next tip.
  4. Wake up earlier to create time for yourself. Speaking of calendars, a huge amount of my anxiety started to shift for me when I started to create open space in my morning. I learned this over 20 years ago while working at a particularly stressful job. I noticed that I set my alarm based on the time I had to be at the office — which meant that from the moment I got up, I was in a bit of a hurry, thinking about my workload and trying to get out the door. One day, I realized I could set my alarm based on when I wanted to get up. I set it for an hour earlier than usual and unlocked a huge reservoir of open, peaceful time. Now my daily practice is to wake at least a couple of hours before I “have” to be anywhere. My morning time lets me set my intentions for the day, enjoy a nice leisurely cup of coffee or two, creates space to get outside, and in general helps me realize that I am more than my schedule.
  5. Choose gratitude. I know you know this: Gratitude is the Universe’s superpower. And honestly, for most of us, it isn’t always our natural state. Turning everything that worries you into something for which you can be grateful can feel hokey at first, but it starts to grow on you. That proposal that is due? “I’m so grateful to have clients who find our help valuable.” The hotel you forgot to book? “I’m grateful to have remembered before I arrived!” The ads you need to place? “I’m grateful to keep learning skills that help me grow.” Try it out. It works.

It’s Smiling, After All

I looked again at the picture and then looked back at Danny. “Aw champ, it’s great. I love it.”

He beamed at me. “But,” I asked, “I’ve got one question: Why a monster? I’m a little concerned that our hero is about to get chomped!”

“I don’t think so, Dad,” Danny said. “Take a look. I mean, the monster is smiling.

Man I love that kid! My best wishes to you. May all your mornings be bright.

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