by Rebecca Crichton

At a recent presentation on Discussing the Undiscussables, when I recited some of the ‘Big D’s’ I want to explore—Dependence, Disability, Dementia, Death and Dying, Depression, Denial—someone called out, “Dread.” Heads all around the room nodded their agreement.

Dread, of course, is connected to fear, the thing that is at the core of those topics we don’t want to talk about but know we need to. I remember an acronym for Fear I once heard: False Expectations Appearing Real. I liked it since it touches on how we often fear things that aren’t actually dangerous or upsetting in the present. That’s where Dread comes in.

I differentiate between the two by assigning fear to what feels like an immediate threat and dread to ‘anticipatory anxiety.’ It’s the difference between waiting in the lobby for a dental procedure and actually watching the drill coming at your mouth.

Zooming back to a larger frame, we need to remember our brains are wired for negativity. The part of our brains considered the oldest in terms of evolution, often referred to as our ‘reptilian brain,’ scans the world for danger and safety. Our earliest ancestors relied on their brains to protect them from lurking saber-tooth tigers or other predators in their environment.

In our current lives, our saber-tooth tigers might be crazy drivers on the freeway or our neighbors with conspiracy theories.

When activated, our reptilian brains pump adrenaline and other stress hormones into our system. There can be energy in that kind of readiness, often called ‘Fight or Flight.’ We become alert, hypervigilant, often having strength to do whatever is necessary to protect ourselves or others from harm.

That is all well and good—provided we are not always in full-on reactivity. Constantly being hypervigilant is bad for our immune systems and means we are always feeling stressed. While we know that some stress can be helpful—it can motivate and enable us to accomplish tasks and meet goals—it can also undermine our overall capacity for pleasure and fulfillment, as well as having negative consequences for our health.

What strategies can we develop to manage the fear/dread cycle?

This is where my favorite dictum comes in: Don’t believe everything you think! It is always worth questioning the assumption that things are more threatening than they really are. Going to the worst-case scenario won’t help us deal with the real situation and what is required to manage it.

In addition to the obvious behaviors of eating well and getting enough sleep, there are many body-based techniques for managing scary thoughts, starting with stress-relief breathing techniques. Meditation, EFT Tapping, Yoga and other physical exercise can also help ground us in the present moment and regain equanimity—or at least calm down enough to escape the catastrophic thinking cycle.

Our personal relationships and community connections matter more than ever when our lives feel unmoored. Share your fears with people you trust and who care about you. Seek advice from knowledgeable sources and guides who can aid you in finding helpful perspectives.

Finally, do things that distract, entertain, and amuse you. It could be listening to music or your favorite streaming series, even a session with cat or baby videos. Gardening, reading, writing—whatever reminds you of who you are and what you value will make a difference.

Fear and dread are legitimate emotions that need examining. How we respond to them is what will reduce their power and help us regain perspective.