How to Deal with Constant Dread?

A reader asks:

Even though my life is going well – great marriage, job, friends – I have this almost constant underlying dread that I can't shake. I wake up most mornings with my stomach in knots, feeling fatigued and tense. Negative worst-case scenarios dominate my thoughts and I can’t seem to fully relax. What do you suggest?

Constant dread is a surprisingly common form of anxiety.

And while I’ve seen many different approaches help, there’s one counterintuitive approach I’d like to explain—both because it’s very powerful and because you’re unlikely to hear it in most of the tips and advice out there about anxiety…

Instead of trying to get rid of your constant dread, try listening to it.

Most of us are so quick to pathologize our anxiety—including dread—that we approach the problem with an already-established assumption that it’s a bad thing to be gotten rid of, like a virus or infection.

But anxiety always happens for a reason. That is, anxiety is our brain trying to tell us that it believes something is dangerous and we need to address it.

Of course, the brain is often incorrect in this assessment. In which case, while anxiety is always well-intentioned, it’s not always worth continuing to listen to or take action on.

But in my experience, this constant dread you describe is very often a form of anxiety with a very legitimate message behind it. And it’s unlikely to go away until your brain is satisfied that you’ve really heard and addressed the potential problem.

So here’s what I’d recommend:

  • Anytime you feel dread, remind yourself that it’s just your brain trying to help. This has the double benefit of making it more likely that you’ll actually discover what that message or warning sign is about and fostering a more compassionate and less self-critical attitude toward your dread. This second point is key because very often anxiety of any kind is strengthened by a habit of being judgmental or critical of the anxiety itself. Emotional validation is a very helpful way to counteract self-criticism.
  • Make time to reflect on your dread purposefully. You probably think a lot about this dread, but I’d venture to guess most of this thinking is reactive in nature; that is, you do it impulsively in response to feeling the dread, but not much outside of that. Instead, flip the script: Carve out 10-15 minutes per day to intentionally journal about your dread and explore what it might be trying to tell you. Then, when it comes up in the moment, remind your brain that you have a time blocked off to think about it, and refocus your attention elsewhere. Of course, your reflections on the dread don’t have to be journalling… You could make time to talk about it with a good friend. You could work with a therapist or coach on it. The point is to make time to think about it in a deliberate and thoughtful way.

Before I end, I want to make explicit something that you may have been reading between the lines…

Your life might not be going as well as you think (or want to believe).

I’m not saying that’s always or even usually the case. But having worked intensively with dozens of people who’ve struggled with constant dread, very often it is a symptom not only of needing to make a major change in your life, but also an indication of a lack of self-awareness.

There’s a lot of social and cultural pressure on all of us to appear as if our lives are “going well.” Which means it’s surprisingly easy to convince ourselves that this is the case despite evidence to the contrary.

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