Lots of people struggle to get themselves motivated and moving in the morning, but the symptoms of depression can directly compound those struggles.
It’s common for people with depression to feel like they’re starting the day with no gas in their tank, says Rebecca Brendel, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston and the 2022–2023 president of the American Psychiatric Association.
“Low energy in the morning is common among people with depression, which can make it hard to get necessary tasks accomplished,” says Dr. Brendel.
But following a morning routine of consistent habits that set you up for a successful day can help, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
Why Mornings Are Challenging if You Have Depression
Anyone can struggle with low energy or lack of motivation in the morning, but these factors are common symptoms of depression and can make the hurdle that much tougher to overcome, Brendel says. These symptoms can feel especially strong in the morning, Brendel adds, due to factors like:
- Poor Sleep
“Sleep disturbance can be a symptom of depression,” says Brendel. Approximately 75 percent of people with depression have insomnia, or difficulty falling or staying asleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
- Decision Fatigue
This refers to feelings of exhaustion and overwhelm that stem from having to make decision after decision every day, per the American Medical Association. Mornings are often chock full of decisions you need to make – such as whether to work out and shower or simply snooze your alarm clock, says Christina Lee, MD, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Baltimore. This can be especially overwhelming for people with depression, who are often already running low on energy, adds Brendel.
Depressive symptoms like lack of energy or negative thoughts likely won’t lift if your depression isn’t properly treated, says Brendel. Lack of treatment or lack of sufficient treatment can contribute to tougher mornings.
- Darker Mornings During Winter
Some people with depression have seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is when depression follows a seasonal pattern, usually worsening during Winter when there are fewer hours of daylight, according to Mayo Clinic. For people with SAD, the reduced sunlight during Winter may disrupt their body’s internal clock and worsen depressive symptoms like low energy, per Mayo Clinic.
Why Having a Morning Routine Can Help You Manage Depression
A morning routine can have plenty of benefits for people with depression, says Dr. Lee. For starters, having a set morning routine means there are fewer decisions to make about how to start your day.
“If you haven’t planned ahead, then everything you’re faced with in the morning is a decision you have to make quickly, which can add to stress and depression,” says Lee.
Decision-making is frequently a significant source of stress for people with depression and related disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Center, a mental health practice in Newport Beach, California. That’s because depression can hinder people’s ability to make optimal decisions, research shows.
Feeling in control of your mornings can help you feel productive and more motivated to take on the rest of the day too. “If you’re able to get yourself on a good start to the morning, that can have a really big impact on feeling like you can accomplish everything you need to throughout the day,” says Brendel.
In general, your mood in the morning can have a significant impact on how you feel for the rest of the day, as well as your ability to get things done.
Starting the day in a positive mood often leads to a positive mood and better work performance throughout the day. Whereas a negative morning mood can not only last all day, but often worsens as the day goes on and can negatively affect work performance, prior research suggests.
12 Tips for Starting a Depression-Friendly Morning Routine
There’s no hard-and-fast rule for what a morning routine should look like – what works for you might differ from what works for someone else. Here are 12 things experts suggest adding to your morning routine to set yourself up for a successful day:
1. Start Your Morning Routine the Night Before
Preparing for each morning by getting enough sleep the night before is one of the best ways to ensure you’ll stick to your new routine, says Lee. Try shutting off screens an hour before bedtime and having a cup of calming decaffeinated tea to help you get to sleep faster, she suggests.
2. Wake Up With a Sunrise Alarm Clock
A sunrise alarm clock – also known as a dawn simulator – uses artificial light to mimic a natural sunrise, slowly increasing the amount of light in your room to wake you up at a time you choose. Light therapies like dawn simulators are considered first-line treatments for depression that worsens in the Winter, when there are fewer daylight hours, according to research published in the July 2015 issue of the Journal of Affective Disorders.
Plus, sunrise alarm clocks are often a lot less jarring than a loud alarm clock, adds Lee. “Being eased into waking sets the stage for a better mood,” she explains. Some clocks on the market also have quiet noises you can select to accompany the light, notes Lee. If you’re not sure which clock to try, consider asking your doctor or therapist for recommendations.
3. Make Your Bed
Making your bed not only helps neaten up your bedroom after a good night’s sleep, but it can also give you a sense of accomplishment first thing in the morning, says Lee.
4. Try Journaling
Journaling can be a helpful morning habit for people who like to express their thoughts in writing and have time to do so bright and early, says Lee. This practice can not only help you deal with stressors or difficult emotions, but it could also help you track successes and challenges related to new habits or goals (like sticking to a morning routine), according to Mental Health America.
You can use a notebook, a gratitude journal, or even the notes in your smartphone to write down how you’re feeling about the day ahead, says Lee. Try to spend 20 minutes each morning (or as often as you’re able to) writing down whatever comes to mind for you, per Mental Health America.
5. Let Invigorating Scents Help Wake You Up
Finding a pleasant scent to enjoy in the morning can do more than just make you happy. Research suggests some scents might even help wake you up, according to the Sleep Foundation. These could include:
- Coffee: Breathing in the smell of coffee may help you feel more alert, according to a small study published in the December 2019 issue of Integrative Medicine Research.
- Peppermint: The scent of peppermint essential oil may boost memory, attention, and alertness, according to a small study published in the June 2019 issue of the American Journal of Plant Sciences.
- Rosemary: Rosemary essential oil is a stimulant, and smelling it could help you feel more alert and awake, according to a study published in the May 2021 issue of Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice.
- Sage: Also known as Salvia, sage and its aroma may benefit attention, memory, and alertness, according to a review published in November 2016 in Drugs in R&D.
6. Practice Deep Breathing
Many people turn to breathwork – breathing techniques involving intentional focus on the breath – to centre themselves and feel a sense of calm in the morning, says Lee. It takes just a few minutes and the techniques are often easy to learn, according to the Cleveland Clinic. One simple technique you could try, per Cleveland Clinic, is called “box breathing.” Aptly named because a box has four sides and this technique has four steps, box breathing involves:
- Breathing in to the count of four
- Holding your breath to the count of four
- Breathing out to the count of four
- Repeating this process as many times as you’d like
7. Fix Yourself a Morning Beverage
“A morning drink for many people has as much to do with ritual as the drink itself and lets their brains know the day is starting,” says Lee. Coffee is a favourite for many because of its energising effects. But if caffeine makes you jittery or anxious, there are other beverages you can try to start your day, suggests Lee:
- Decaf or low-caf tea (like herbal varieties)
- Hot cocoa
- Warm milk
- Green smoothie with avocado, kiwi, or other healthy green produce
8. Choose Activities That Make the Rest of Your Day Easier
For some people, a big morning motivator is not to have a list of chores to do when the day is done, says Brendel. For example, if you make a habit of immediately washing the dishes you used for breakfast, you won’t have to deal with those dishes later in the day, she adds. This can be especially helpful if you frequently find yourself zapped of energy after work or school.
9. Get Your Body Moving
Exercise can boost your mood, so doing it in the morning can be very good for you. One reason, according to the American Psychological Association: Prioritising exercise can increase your likelihood of sticking to other healthy habits that can ease depression in the long run, such as eating a nutritious diet, keeping in touch with friends, and getting enough shut-eye each night.
If a high-intensity, high-energy bootcamp-style workout or cardio exercise motivates you, go for it, Lee says. If you’re looking for something that’s a little gentler on the body or you can wake up with a little more slowly, Lee says. Lower-intensity movement can help too. Even just stretching in the morning can help your body wake up and release endorphins, which are hormones that reduce stress and boost mood, she adds.
10. Call or Text a Friend
If you have trouble getting going in the morning, it could help to have a “buddy” – such as a friend or family member – to keep you accountable, says Lee. For instance, you could ask a friend to check in with you each morning to make sure you’ve woken up and got your day started (via text, phone call, or in person if it’s someone you live with). Or if you have a co-worker who lives near you, you could ask to commute together. That can make the trip more fun while boosting your odds that you’ll leave the house on time, says Lee.
11. Start Small
Try committing to just two or three things to start with, like making your bed or doing light stretches. Doing this can help you feel more organised and ready for the day while not feeling too overwhelming, says Brendel.
12. Focus on Small Victories
If you were able to get up and have coffee, have a shower, or accomplish whatever you’d planned for your morning, congratulate yourself.