For some of us, it’s been there so long we don’t even realize it’s an emotion, descending equally upon our best-laid plans or life’s curveballs with a stomach-churning, foreboding promise that shit is about to suck, hard. Some of us have grown so accustomed to it that it clings even to the good things peeking up at us from our Google calendar. And then there are others who were as familiar with dread as all of us were with Covid-19 back in December. And then, bam, it's 2020—dread's time to shine.
So if you need a little help getting a handle on this sucker, read on. Because while dread can be a truly unruly beast, taming it is nowhere near as scary as letting it run the show.
There are two approaches to ditching dread: the mental and the physical. Ideally, we will do both, because as we know, mind-body is just two halves of the same whole.
Let's start with the mental.
Look Under the Bed
Dread thrives in the dark corners of our minds. Just like the Boogeyman, by refusing to face it, dread gains strength, until it's haunting our days and nights. So when you feel dread coming on, acknowledge it. Accept it. Make friends with it. It thinks it’s keeping you safe, after all. Remember, you can’t challenge something that you’re hiding from.
Dear Diary It
Get the dread out of your head. Writing your feelings out can be the quickest way to get a handle on them. Some prompts: Is my worry or fear based in fact? (Hint: if you’re asking yourself “what if” questions, then the answer is probably no.) If you can’t help but engage your imagination, ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” If the worst were to happen, would you still be alive? If the answer is yes, then it’s nothing you can’t handle. And finally, ask yourself, “Am I okay at this very moment?” Chances are, you are. And that, by the way, is dread’s kryptonite. Start living in the moment and dread doesn’t stand a chance.
Why is mediation so helpful when it comes to dread? There have been countless studies proving that it lowers stress, reduces anxiety, lowers blood pressure, and improves focus, but there’s also a much simpler reason why it works. The practice of meditation is the practice of keeping yourself in the moment, and the bonus is that it spills over into your entire day. There’s also another, harder to quantify benefit, which is, if you can still your mind and your body and do nothing to distract yourself, you start to realize that nothing is wrong. Nothing is coming to get you, nothing is falling apart without you, it all just is, and you will just be, and be okay through all of it.
And now, let’s get physical.
It’s All One Big Guessing Game
Lisa Feldman Barret, a psychology professor at Northeastern University and author of How Emotions are Made, argues that emotions do not happen to us but are created by us. In fact, they’re actually just predictions our brain is making, based on past experiences, as to why we don’t feel well. Our brains, her research shows, are constantly trying to find patterns and reason where there might be none. With the modern-day disconnect we feel from our bodies, our brains are much more likely to lament on what is wrong with our lives than the fact that we may be dehydrated, lacking sleep, experiencing a sugar crash, or dealing with inflammation. And those are just the big ones that we can feel. It turns out our bodies are sending signals to our brains constantly, regarding much more subtle changes.
Studies have shown the vagus nerve, a nerve that wanders from the lowest region of our abdomen up to our brain stem, passing every major organ along the way, is constantly sending information about our bodies up to our brain. This superhighway spanning our bodies runs both ways, which means that while meditation can calm the butterflies in your stomach, what you put into your stomach can calm your mind. Barret suggests that to change emotions, we must change the ingredients in our bodies that are making the emotions. How to do that?
Get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a diet packed with fruits and vegetables. Exercise. Meditate. Incorporate adaptogens like lion’s mane and reishi mushrooms into your diet, which have shown to curb anxiety. And don’t forget to phone a friend. In this time of social distancing and uncertainty, we need connection more than ever. Just telling someone your fears can go a long way in dismantling their power over you.
Lastly, if your dread truly stems from a matter of life or death, remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, who said, “If I am killed, I can die but once; but to live in constant dread of it is to die over and over again.”
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