Is morning daydreaming screwing up your day?

Do you have an urge to daydream the minute you wake up in the morning? I do. For years, the snooze button worked overtime. I had to have a (not-so) quick check-in with my paras before I could get out of bed.

Research suggests I’m not alone. The MDS-16, the screening questionnaire used to assess maladaptive daydreaming, contains the question “When you first wake up in the morning, how strong has your urge been to immediately start daydreaming?” If I could, I’d give that one 120%.

But why is it that when we wake up, the first thing we want to do is daydream? There are many possible reasons. Maybe you were in the middle of an exciting plot development when you fell asleep and you can’t wait to get back to it. Maybe you want an excuse to stay warm in bed for just a few more minutes. Or maybe there isn’t a lot to look forward to in the day ahead and your paracosm feels more entertaining than real life.

But for some of us, there’s a biological reason why we want to daydream as soon as we wake up. 70% of maladaptive daydreamers have some sort of anxiety disorder. And in my experience, other mental health problems can mask underlying anxiety. I had depression for years, but it was only when I had my breakdown that I realised I’d probably also had anxiety the whole time. I was so disconnected from my emotions and my body that I hadn’t been able to feel it. The one time I do feel anxious though is first thing in the morning. Even now, I sometimes wake up with a burning sensation in the pit of my stomach, my breathing constricted and my heart pounding – signs that I’ve learned are the physical manifestations of an anxiety I ignored for most of my life.

Morning anxiety is actually very common, and has a biochemical basis. Our levels of cortisol – one of the stress hormones – typically peak an hour or so after we wake up. But they start rising before we wake up. So when we wake, our cortisol levels are already high. This can bring any underlying anxiety bubbling into awareness. Provided, of course, that you allow yourself to feel it. Because many daydreamers, myself included, don’t. I discovered at a young age that I could avoid anxiety by daydreaming. Any time I got that uncomfortable sensation in my stomach, I’d mentally transport myself to a happier place and the feeling would go away. Over time, the connection became so automatic that I didn’t even feel the anxiety. I only felt the uncontrollable urge to daydream.

But of course, once you’ve slipped into your paracosm, it can be hard to get out again. Morning daydreaming can keep you in bed so long that you end up skipping breakfast or being late for work.

So what can you do about it? If you’re prone to morning anxiety, you need to find a gentle way to manage it that doesn’t involve diving into your paracosm. What works for you will depend on what you need to get done in the morning and on what you personally find calming. But for me, tai chi is the secret to a daydream-free morning.

As soon as I wake up, I scan my body to see whether I’m feeling any anxiety – I’m teaching myself how anxiety feels so that I can recognise it when it shows up. Then I get straight out of bed – I’m usually on my feet within five minutes of waking up. Then the magic happens. I go outside (yes, even if it’s raining) and I do 15 minutes of tai chi. (I personally love this tai chi routine.) Exercise helps to burn off excess cortisol, but I don’t often feel like vigorous exercise first thing in the morning. The gentler movements of tai chi work better for me. It also has a meditative feel that I find very grounding. Getting outside in the fresh air helps me feel more alert. And the movements require just enough concentration to stop me wandering off into a daydream. If tai chi isn’t your thing, I’d encourage you to find something you enjoy that incorporates those four elements – exercise, mindfulness, fresh air and enough mental challenge to keep you from daydreaming.

By the time I’ve finished my tai chi, I’m awake, alert and the urge to daydream has passed. I’m ready to start my day.

So if daydreaming first thing in the morning means that you start every day rushing to catch up, I highly recommend finding a gentle nurturing morning routine that will calm any anxiety. It needs to be something you genuinely look forward to, because when you have a reason – even a small one – to get out of bed, the whole day flows more easily.