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High Cortisol Mornings



One of the most collectively miserable experiences amongst people coming off benzodiazepines and in the post-benzo healing phase is the dreaded high cortisol mornings!

"Mornings are by far the toughest for me..." is perhaps the most common phrase I've heard from countless people during my time as a Benzo coach. And it was no different for me either during my own stent in the Benzo war.


I lived by some train tracks, and the trains would come in a few times a night, especially toward early morning. When they would roar by my house, you could feel the vibration. In my sleep, what little sleep I got, this always translated into some nightmare about inescapable tornados coming for me. This could further manifest into nightmares about bears chasing me or some other horrific experience.




I'd awake most mornings with extreme mental and physical anxiety. I could feel it in my bad dreams before I'd even open my eyes, my body already surging with cortisol-driven stress. I'd become aware of the morning anxiety while coming out of my stressful dreams. Before I opened my eyes, I'd often already know exactly where I was and what I was going through, and I'd already have a sense of the dreadful day that awaited me.


I was defeated before I even opened my eyes.


My head and eyes hurt, my heart was pounding fast, my muscles twitched, cramped, and surged, and my stomach churned with fear. Mornings for me were the hardest. Within seconds of opening my eyes, I was already sucker punched by fear and immediately in a dogfight with my rumination.


At this point, I'd get on my phone or laptop and begin researching about benzos or related mental or physical illnesses. I'd research things such as, "How many panic attacks can a person have before they blow out their adrenals?"


Needless to say, mornings almost finished me... until I figure out how to better manage them!


One morning, I thought to myself, "Something has to change. I can't keep this up." And I was reminded of the quote about insanity, how insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. That's what I was doing. It was Groundhog's Day on a loop. I finally had the thought that perhaps my defeated attitude was working against me. I truly believed I could predict my entire day by how I felt within the first 15 seconds of opening my eyes. If I woke up feeling exceptional stress, I felt defeated and hopeless. I'd lay and ruminate most of the day. "Why bother?" I'd think. Of course, the problem with this way of thinking and behavior is that it certainly becomes true. I robbed myself of any chance of turning the day around, stuck in my own negative pessimism. That's when I decided to run a few experiments.


Upon waking, defeated by the high stress and fear, I decided to get out of bed and get a hot bath immediately. I started to work the Five Senses Limbic Training exercise, burning a candle with some vanilla or lavender bath balm, a piece of dark chocolate to suck on, and some soft Enya playing from my crummy old portable cd player. After a few days of doing this, it finally happened. After a couple of hours of being awake, the stress fog had disappeared largely.




I had, in fact, broken the self-fulfilling cycle for the first time!


That was a huge "ah-hah!" moment for me. I think recovery is filled with moments like that, which we really need to help open our eyes and push us forward.

After that day, I never stayed in bed again longer than 5 minutes upon waking.

This led to my morning routine, which I still teach my students. I'd open my eyes and begin focusing on my breathing. I'd slow it back down and try my best to release tension from my body. I'd focus my mind on cognitive reframing, gently but firmly pushing back against all of those cortisol and adrenaline-driven fears. I'd say things to myself such as, "You can do this. You WILL beat this and get your life back. You're stronger than you think. There's nothing wrong with you other than terrible withdrawal. Your brain is not broken! This is ALL fear from chemical withdrawal!" After that, I'd do my Four Anchors of Love, by which I'd meditate for a moment on the most important people and things in my life. I'd really focus on my love and gratitude, trying desperately to feel those feelings and not just intellectualize my emotions. This is very common for us benzo people to intellectualize our emotions. Someone could ask us how we feel, and we would tell them what we are thinking. We tend to think our feelings.


After a few minutes of this morning's reframing and meditation, I peeled myself out of bed and away from any technology that would aid my rumination. I'd slip into a hot bath or hot tub and do my best to get out of my own way, focusing on striking my senses with something good or pleasurable.

While this was a process, a kind of skill set I was developing, I can sincerely tell you that it eventually began to catch on and grow. Mornings surprisingly got a bit more manageable, and many, many times, I was actually able to turn my day around and prove my pessimistic morning forecast wrong. Just because we wake up that way doesn't mean we cannot turn it around or that we shouldn't at least try.


Mornings become predictable by the amygdala in the same way as having a hungry bear sniffing around our campgrounds each early morning. Our limbic system learns to be on even higher alert, conditioned by the repetitious bear encounter. This produces an escalating sensitivity to morning stress, a forecasting of danger by our amygdala. Needless to say, it creates a nasty, growing self-perpetuating loop of fear!

To make matters worse, our anxiety the night before about the next morning also serves as an additional stress increase. This forecasting actually leads to even higher cortisol spikes in the morning.


This is why we must really hit our mornings with fierce determination. Do not just settle for misery or fall into the negative mindset of believing you can tell the rest of your day simply by how you feel within moments of being awake. This truly creates a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

Make peace with your mornings. Focus on what we can and should be doing. Keep ignoring the bear. Let it be. It's here to sniff around the campsite. Withdrawal has attracted the bear, but we do not need to feed the damn thing. Nor should we. The more we feed it, the longer it stays.



So, I implore you, my friends, to try something different. Learn to lull and push back against the morning high cortisol spikes, which is largely why we all feel so terrible in the morning. Cortisol is at its highest in the early morning and will fall as the day gets long, which is why so many people report feeling less anxious into the evening. Cortisol is an accelerant for benzo withdrawal symptoms. Upon waking, our first thoughts should be, "How do I lower this cortisol and norepinephrine?


Try a hot bath with some deep breathing. Find a helpful distraction. Go for a walk and burn off that excess cortisol. Drink lots of water to flush your system, and if you can, immediately get some sunlight!

Run the experiments. See if you can surprise yourself and turn your day around!


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This is ideal but what if you have not slept or maybe eeked out a couple of hours. I don’t see myself getting up for the day at 2 am. So I do lay in bed to rest my body. Yes it can be stressful. But if I got up 5 minutes after waking I would not function. I get up at 6 am for full time work.

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When dealing with sleep issues, just stick to whatever time you would get out of bed instead of sitting there for hours ruminating and Google searching, etc. If you have to get up and go to work, then I'd still recommend implementing as much of this as feasible.

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