Psychotherapy is effective at reducing anxiety, fear, phobia, and dread. To start, there are many different types and flavors of anxiety. Today I am going to discuss a way of thinking about a very future-oriented and particularly crippling form of anxiety called dread. Dread is an especially disturbing form of anxiety that is most akin to a mixture of fear and doubt. We usually feel dread when we are thinking way into the future such as buying a house or starting a new job. For anybody that has ever felt dread, it is clear that it belongs in the anxiety family, and it can end up being a burdensome, persistent emotional state that effects sleep, appetite, and irritability.
The Road Trip Analogy
One of the ways that I talk to people about dread is by working within a metaphor. I have them imagine a nighttime road trip from Los Angeles to Chicago. So lets lay this out. You know where you are starting from (L.A.) and you know where you are going (Chicago), but since it is nighttime, you can only see about 200 yards in front of you. Your vision is limited to the area illuminated by your headlights. Destination, start point, and your closest surroundings are known, but you are in the dark as to the details of the road ahead and what each turn will look like. The anxious mind will begin to think about how to feel safer and calmer. I should bring a map, I should talk to somebody who has made the trip...etc. But, what about weather, roadwork, wrong turns…etc. Plainly, it is impossible to remove all uncertainty from the trip. Uncertainty is another form of anxiety not to mention the innate human fear of the dark. So now we are just allowing anxiety to breed. When you mix all this uncertainty with some fear, you might start to feel pessimistic and filled with dread.
So you are left with a few options to lower your anxiety about the trip.
1) You can map out to the detail every single turn and rest stop, trying to take into account any and all events. This is a method that many attempt to use to lower anxiety. At its best it is called preparedness and at its worst it is OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). The problem is that on a long trip like this, it is virtually impossible to take into account all of the many factors and possibilities…i.e doubt and what if something bad happens…fear. Fear plus doubt equals dread.
2) Another option is to not go at all. Anxiety leads us to avoid or withdraw from scary situations. At its best that is called being cautious and at its worst its called being a hermit or recluse or Agoraphobia.
3) The third option is a road of balance. Prepare as much as feels comfortable enough, apply just enough caution, and take each mile one at a time. Since you know where you are going (Chicago) and presumably you want to go there, you can use that thought as comfort. , we can see only as far as our headlights and all we can do is make our best possible choice with all of our limited information. Put simply, in most of our major endeavors in life, we are making educated guesses but are mostly “flying blind”. Now, for some of you that may sound scary, but I encourage you to think of this as a comforting thought. The way to do that is to think of each decision that you will have to make during your journey as just that, an individual decision. “Baby steps.” Just keep your eyes on the road, only looking as far as the headlights can show you, but never forgetting that you have a map and you know your destination. One mistake people make is obsessing over what could be up ahead in the dark and focusing on all of the negative outcomes. At those times, it is important to say to oneself, “I know my destination, I cannot see in the dark, and I will do my best with whatever comes my way.” Be alert, be cautious, but try not to drive beyond your beams. Basically, take one stretch of road at a time. Small things make us less anxious than big things.
When something is making you feel anxious or bringing on dread, try not to look past your headlights but at the same time, do not forget your final destination. A concrete example of this would be if you decide to change careers by going back to school. The entire journey is overwhelming and long, but the finish line can be a thought that is soothing and exciting as long as you don’t look past the headlights of getting into school, or passing your first class, or even deciding how to pay for it. I hope this cam across in a somewhat understandable format, but if not and you are intrigued, I am much better at explaining things in person, that is why I am a therapist and not a writer.
Take what you like and leave the rest,