“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
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