My son once described August as the Sunday of the summer. The thought of homework, going to bed early, and having to wear shoes again made him shudder. When a back-to-school commercial played on the television, he would leave the room. The countdown was painful. The closer Labor Day loomed, the harder it became to think about anything else. One late August evening, feeling a chill in the air, he said, “I almost wish school started tomorrow. I just want to get it over with.”
What my son was experiencing wasn’t anxiety. It was dread. Dread is its own unique form of despair. Defined as an “extreme reluctance to meet or face,” dread conjures impending doom. Unlike anxiety which is characterized by uncertainty and generalized worry, dread is more specific. The cruelty of dread is it’s inevitability. Anxiety is imagining there might be a hungry monster under the bed. Dread is knowing there is a hungry monster under the bed.
Of course students are not the only ones who experience dread as the summer winds down. Many people experience end-of-summer blues. Transitions are always challenging but this year is particularly dread-riddled. Practically everyone I speak to is consumed with one form of dread or another about the fall–dread of catching the delta variant, dread of returning to the office, dread of another lockdown. The dread of returning to middle school pales in comparison to the collective dread people are feeling now.
Anticipating something horrible can be horrible in itself. Or as Tor Wager of Columbia University observed, “expecting an emotional event is an emotional event.” A 2014 study underscores the discomfort of dread. When given the choice of receiving an immediate strong electrical shock versus a milder one in the future, most participants opted to receive the more intense shock right away. Anticipating unpleasantness was so unpleasant that they would rather receive more voltage than have to endure waiting.
Dread is a catalyst for catastrophizing. Instead of imagining the most realistic outcome, dread distorts our thinking so that the worst case scenario becomes the only possible scenario. In addition to warping our perception of the future, when we’re awash in dread, the present becomes purgatory, a prelude to the dreaded event. It’s hard to enjoy anything in the moment when we’re preoccupied with the thoughts of imminent misery.
Thankfully, there are some researched-based strategies to make dread less debilitating.
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman