Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

How Dread is Tied to the Stress Response

Dread. We all feel it. Watching the news brings it on. Witnessing disaster after disaster keeps us feeling it. Listening to a friend tell you about their illness secretly gives us a sense of dread. What if it’s me next? What if “it” happens again? What if this loop of dreadful news just continues nonstop?

We never know what the future holds – and it’s part of the reason, as human beings, we are so good at projecting, forecasting and pontificating the great “what ifs” of life. We aren’t sure what the day’s news will bring – and rarely is it ever good. We don’t know the security of our jobs, ultimately. We are unsure of our safety, our children’s safety, our well-being and health, our homes. All of this uncertainty creates a constant state of dread for many people and shows up in the form of low-grade anxiety, something we fondly refer to as LGA.

At the root of LGA is this sense of “What’s coming next? When is the other shoe going to drop?” This feeling may stem from childhood experiences or other life experiences when surprise, uncertainty and mild to moderate trauma caused us to go into the ‘freeze’ state, a neurological and bio-physical imperative that happens as a primitive response to acute stress.   From that state, it is natural and normal that we can feel anxious, wondering and waiting for what is (negatively) going to happen next. Within the freeze is, essentially, the stifled energy and power of the fight-flight response. So when we come out of the freeze – we often come out with a bang of terror or rage or enough energy to run away or fight the situation.

While the freeze is associated with dissociation or depression, fight-flight gives us the power to physically defeat a threat – i.e. kill if necessary – and/or run for your life as fast as possible. The energy states associated with the fight-flight system are incredibly powerful and adrenaline is a primary byproduct and can momentarily help you turn into a superman or superwoman. Research shows that those who successfully evade or fight off threats (meaning any myriad of life experiences) are less likely to experience the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress.

When fight or flight is thwarted, the freeze mechanism can turn on. At its primitive roots, it is a survival mechanism. In the state of freeze, we won’t feel the pain of death as readily, so it’s a natural opiated state that results from being “taken down”. It can happen to any of us and not necessarily in response to life-threatening events. In fact, as a culture, we often go into the freeze over less and less REAL threat and more and more PERCEIVED threat. The perceptual version of the freeze is dissociation, an out-of-body or other worldly sort of fog state in which we don’t feel present. You could experience this from simply watching videos of the latest disaster, getting a letter in the mail from the IRS, losing your job, or even less threatening, worrying about what others think of you, feeling bullied, betrayed or marginalized.

For many human beings, we live with chronic stressors and micro-traumas every day. This constant stress-soup peppered with low-grade anxiety drives that sense of dread – and certainly explains, in part, why we feel it! This kind of anxiety is more of a simmer than a boil. It eats away at us and robs us of our health, our relationships, our dreams. It’s “death by a thousand cuts” rather than a single wound.

One surefire way to lower LGA is to begin to accept that ‘uncertainty’ and ‘insecurity’ are at the root of life. And if we know the key, we are actually equipped to deal with that fact. It is part of what makes a human being resilient! Quite paradoxically, many of us are driven to create a sense of security and certainty which we’ll go to great lengths to ensure. But when we can align with chaos as part of the norm, we can begin to build our skills as a surfer on the waves of chaos.

We can manage our LGA with improved awareness and application of autonomic self-regulation and self-mastery skills. We can greet uncertainty and insecurity with a good attitude and approach. One day we might even reach the level of being calm in the face of the storm. Aware, awake and capable in the presence of chaos. That is resilience.

In addition to acceptance of “what is”, learning to breathe effectively can have the single largest impact on decreasing your LGA and your sense of dread. When we are triggered by stress, we start to breathe shallow, tighten our musculature, and narrow our focus. Less oxygen means less ability to think clearly, see clearly and make the most effective gross actions. Increasing the length and duration of your breath WHEN STRESS ARISES, is an excellent way of getting in the Commander Seat of the situation.

As a challenge, see if you’re able to LINK the old stress response with a new response –use the next stressful experience as an opportunity to practice deep, full, cyclic breathing. In through the nose, fill the lungs completely, let your belly expand. Pause for a few second. Begin the exhale, by slowly releasing the breath through the mouth. Pause for a few seconds and then begin next inhalation. Repeat.

With continued practice, your lungs will be able to take in more oxygen with each breath, and you’ll be able to control the inhalation and exhalation speed while lengthening your ability to be empty and full. You will receive far more oxygen to your bloodstream, brain, organs, muscles, etc, and by virtue, you will decrease the LGA and begin to shift that sense of dread to one of self-awareness.

Know that no matter what happens in the external world around you, you can always change and chose your internal response. This is the key to unlocking the door to a life beyond LGA and that old companion, Dread.