Are Feelings of Dread Holding You Hostage?

Portrait of beautiful 35 year old woman“If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it is to die over and over again.” —Abraham Lincoln

“Something did happen to me somewhere that robbed me of confidence and courage and left me with a fear of discovery and change and a positive dread of everything unknown that may occur.” ―Joseph Heller

I recently came across the above quote by Joseph Heller and it hit me right to my very depths. I remember as a child actively learning to—in essence—feel constant dread, as I taught myself to avoid disappointment and failure by always anticipating the worst. That way, when it came to be, I wouldn’t be devastated—just fatalistically accepting. It gave me a sense of control when I felt none. In so doing, I—like Joseph Heller—set into motion a lifelong habit of dreading just about everything. In fact, it has so pervaded my thinking that I have often observed myself dreading a fun or enjoyable event, just because it is my habit to do so.

The above description might not be exactly true for you (I hope it is not!), but it is a common state for many people in our culture. Most of us were not taught to deal with adversity in a healthy way, so we learned or taught ourselves how to avoid pain. As for me, as I’ve gotten older, gone through several rounds of psychotherapy, and explored many different spiritual traditions for help with dread, I have learned to work with the feelings. I’ve also helped many people deal with these same kinds of feelings. So what has worked?

I think the great Sufi poet Rumi expressed it best in his poem, The Guest House (excerpt):

The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.

Most of us spend a lot of our time fighting this sense of dread, feeling powerless to combat it and completely at its whim. We push it away, only to find it resurfaces at just the wrong time! Once you recognize this cycle, you can simply accept this dread that is so often present instead of fighting it off. When it arrives, allow it to be there without beating yourself up. Take some deep, yogic breaths to quiet your mind a bit, and then ask yourself some questions:

  • Are there any data to support this feeling of dread? Is there really anything to be afraid of in this particular circumstance?
  • Even if you can clearly identify the fear, ask yourself, “What’s the worst-case scenario? Would I be OK if that happened? Would it change who I am, or would it just be a challenge?” Most of the time, when I answer these questions honestly, I realize that my fear has been exaggerated in my mind. I realize that I am capable of handling whatever happens, and that I am just afraid of what I don’t know or perhaps of pain or rejection. Once I have softened my “rigid” response, I feel less dread and can tolerate whatever still lingers (and by the way, it often does not miraculously disappear!).
  • Ask yourself, “Is anything happening to me right now?” Usually the answer is no; the dread is arising from some anticipated event in the future. You can then take a few breaths and remind yourself that your monkey mind is hijacking the moment instead of allowing you to be present in this moment. I often bring my attention to sensations in my body or to something beautiful in my immediate environment that grounds me in the reality of that moment. And I quickly realize “I have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

The more I have practiced this, the more I have been able to “work with” the dread and not allow it to disable me from living fully. There are days when I have to go through the above steps many times, and yet others where I am fully engaged moment-to-moment and don’t have the “time” to dread.

Next time you can’t get out of dread, try teaching yourself that you can: once you loosen your attachment to those feelings, they have way less power over you than you might think.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lillian Rozin, MFA, LCSW, RYT, therapist in Media, Pennsylvania

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Livy

    Livy

    September 11th, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    I have the dreads, usually on Sundays when it comes time to start getting ready for work the next day, and that can be such a killer of my weekend, that is for sure!
    I try not to let it bother me, Monday is always coming around and is the inevitable end to my at home time with my family, and I know that a better way to look at this is as another possibility to learn and grow.
    But the Sunday sadness always consumes me and sometimes I know that I spend all weekend that I should be enjoying actually dreading the upcoming next week.

  • Mitch

    Mitch

    September 11th, 2014 at 4:25 PM

    Funny how when I wa sreading this I felt like you were talking right to me. These are things that always have way more control over me than what I would like and yet there they always are telling me that I don’t wnat to face this or that I am not good enough to do that.

  • Nate

    Nate

    September 12th, 2014 at 1:52 PM

    It really does help when you can put an exact name to this fear that causes these adverse feelings inside of you. If you chalk it up to general malaise it is much harder to get a grip on that it is when you can actually name the thing or things that cause you to feel this way. That helps you sort of put your eyes on the prize and to have a better understanding of what you are fighting against.

  • paula t

    paula t

    September 15th, 2014 at 3:59 AM

    The Rumi quote is the best!

  • Marsena

    Marsena

    September 16th, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    How can I continue to live my life in a way that leaves me afraid of that which I haven’t yet confronted nor do I already know? Can’t I see just how much this alone holds me back and keeps me frm achieving that wich I could achieve?

  • Tenee

    Tenee

    February 21st, 2016 at 9:13 PM

    I often don’t know exactly why the dread hits me. I often have struggled in my life so it could be a number of things. Identifying the root can be the most difficult for me, so how do I began to deal with it? How do I figure out the root cause?

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    February 22nd, 2016 at 10:53 AM

    Dear Tenee,

    Thank you for your comment. The GoodTherapy.org Team is not qualified to offer professional advice, but we encourage you to reach out. A therapist or counselor may be able to help you address these feelings of dread and identify any root causes.

    You can locate a mental health professional in your area through our site. Simply enter your ZIP code here:
    https://www.goodtherapy.org/find-therapist.html

    Please know you are not alone. Help is available, and we wish you the best of luck in your search.

    Kind regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Courtney

    Courtney

    May 17th, 2017 at 2:50 PM

    Every morning I wake up with my heart pounding and feeling like someone is kneeling on my chest. I had to stop wearing makeup due to crying too much in the mornings. This constant feeling of dread is controlling my life and I need a way to make it stop. I currently talk to a counsellor, and am on the fence about taking medications. Other than breathing exercises, does anybody have tips or tricks on how to calm themselves down?

  • Andy

    Andy

    June 21st, 2018 at 1:23 PM

    Hi Courtney,
    Hope you have found some methods in the year that has passed since you posted this question. I have found that exercise helps and that being near a body of water helps.

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