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The meaning of dread and how to manage it


We all have a list of things we dread these days - the start of the work week late on Sunday afternoon, the impending holidays and what we're doing about them, the existential threat of climate change.


This season on "More Than A Feeling," a podcast from Ten Percent Happier, Saleem Reshamwala explores that feeling in a series called "The Dread Project."

SALEEM RESHAMWALA: In my head, my dread is actually, if I do a voice, it's like, (deepens voice) hey, Saleem, you're probably going to mess this up.

KELLY: In each episode, the podcast walks through one easy exercise to help you navigate dread in your own life.

SHAPIRO: One quick note before we jump in - these exercises are in no way meant to be a substitute for working with a mental health professional. And if you or someone you love is struggling with difficult emotions, we want to remind you that the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day. Just dial 988 to connect directly with support. That is 9-8-8.

KELLY: NPR's Marielle Segarra spoke with Saleem Reshamwala in a collaboration with NPR's Life Kit. Here's part of their conversation.

MARIELLE SEGARRA, BYLINE: I wonder, what does dread actually look like? Like, how does it show up in people's lives?

RESHAMWALA: I love that question because I've been straight-up asking a bunch of people what dread looks like to them, and people describe it as kind of a cloud, a lot of times, hanging over them.


MOLLY MATLOCK: Getting up in the morning and having to deal with whatever problems that day is going to bring.

HELEN: An impending sense of doom.

ZOEY MIRAND: It's not the distant future that scares me as much as the immediate tomorrow scares me.

RESHAMWALA: And as far as what they feel, it can be a full range of things. A lot of them are sort of similar to what you might think of with anxiety.


ELIZABETH ALVA: I dread communicating how I feel.

AMY: Oh God, what's going to happen in the future? What if I don't have a job at all?

RESHAMWALA: So we started talking to a lot of other people about it. And it really was a recurring theme that there's something like a dreadpocalypse (ph) right now. Like, people are feeling dread from so many different sources. So we decided to do this new thing for us, which is releasing five episodes over the course of five days, each one with a different action that people could actually try out and try to do. They're each different little ways to manage dread you might be feeling.

SEGARRA: OK. Well, the first one is writing about it, right? What is the prompt itself, or, like, what are you supposed to write?

RESHAMWALA: So there's a lot of different ways to approach this. What clinical psychologist and poet Hala Alyan walks us through is actually an imagined dialogue with dread, where you pretend to be your dread and think about what your dread might say to you, how it might describe itself. And the idea is to kind of humanize that feeling and turn it into a bit of a person itself. Something about writing can help you keep a thought from looping. Like, you're probably not going to write the same sentence again and again and again. You get it out of your head, and it's on a page. Here's clinical psychologist and poet Hala Alyan.


HALA ALYAN: If I write a poem, there's an element of me in that poem. I've engaged in that poem. I've helped bring it into the world. But I - that poem does not contain all the multitudes of Hala, right? It's not all Hala, you know? And so I think there's something about that that helps people.

SEGARRA: That's one day of the series, is putting your dread into words. What's next?

RESHAMWALA: So we found someone who told us about a technique that actually involves zero words, and that's drawing or, for most of us, kind of doodling your dread.

SEGARRA: I'm going to have to ask - do you have to be good at this? - because I am...


SEGARRA: ...The worst at drawing. I'm really bad at it.

RESHAMWALA: The person we were talking to is clinical art therapist Naomi Cohen-Thompson. And I asked. I was like, can I get stick men in here? Can I - you know, I'm just Bic pen and line notebook paper scribble. Is that going to be OK? And it totally, totally was.

SEGARRA: Oh, good.

RESHAMWALA: And, yeah, one of the benefits of drawing is you actually turn off your analytical mind for a bit.


NAOMI COHEN-THOMPSON: You know, you don't have to constantly engage with the kind of intellectual thinking through of a feeling. I think that's exhausting. So if you use something like drawing or painting or whatever it is, it allows you to kind of have that time to decompress a bit.

SEGARRA: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, OK, what does your dread look like?

RESHAMWALA: So during the call with Naomi, I actually had to draw my own dread very rapidly, and it looked like this.


RESHAMWALA: Dread is these little beasts underground, lurking beneath the sometimes...


RESHAMWALA: ...Happy things we're doing.

COHEN-THOMPSON: The idea that all of this exists, like, kind of underneath and nobody can see it - like, I have a feeling that a lot of people manage to, like, make it work and muscle through and smile, and nobody ever knows that they're actually feeling a fair amount of fear.

SEGARRA: OK. So it feels like we've been talking about dread that is super personal and existential.


SEGARRA: But then there's also this big universal existential dread that hits a lot of people, for instance about climate change.

RESHAMWALA: There's actually a name for this dread around climate change. Some people call it eco dread. We talked to a somatic therapist named Patricia Adams. One of the things she does is help listeners understand that the environments immediately around them can help them build up emotional resilience.


PATRICIA ADAMS: Ecotherapy, to me, is the idea of embracing our relationship to nature, or sometimes it's called the more-than-human world, to understand ourselves as part of it, as not separate from it. There are some really healing and soothing things that just happen to our physiology - you know, like, the systems in our bodies, the physiology - that respond favorably to looking at, you know, beautiful trees as they change colors in the fall or to hearing the sounds of birds or to smelling plants.

RESHAMWALA: And, you know, not everyone's right next to a forest or a stream, but she had this really specific tip, this thing she calls sunset bathing.


ADAMS: Sometime around sunset, if you can go outside just for, like, literally a minute, 30 seconds - it doesn't matter how long. The longer the better, probably, but not if that's an obstacle. To me, it's about reconnecting with the rhythms of the natural world, which then hopefully stimulates this idea of meaningful action, right? What you love, you serve.

SEGARRA: If people walk away from this series with one idea, what would you want that to be?

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. In one of the conversations I had with Dr. Ali Mattu, he was just kind of playing with the idea, as we were chatting out loud, that sometimes he thinks of action in some cases as the opposite of dread, you know? Just finding some way to take a small action can make you feel less overwhelmed. And that was just a recurring theme in the conversations we had. It's not to say that, like, oh, you got to flip the switch, and you can't dread anything now. You got to be super happy and jolly even though there's all this terrible stuff. So it was more about finding little tools that help us get those pieces of joy, these pieces of distance from our problems and, you know, getting a little space to think and process and be alive.

SHAPIRO: That was Saleem Reshamwala speaking with NPR Life Kit's Marielle Segarra. You can listen to Saleem's podcast "More Than A Feeling" or visit to learn more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Marielle Segarra
Marielle Segarra is a reporter and the host of NPR's Life Kit, the award-winning podcast and radio show that shares trustworthy, nonjudgmental tips that help listeners navigate their lives.