top of page

Dread - I can't bear what is coming up next


Almost all of us are familiar with the feeling of dread. We have a sense that something unpleasant is ahead. And it makes us anxious, fearful, edgy, and unhappy.

As I write this, it is the last evening of a 3-day long weekend, and already, some friends have been expressing their dread of a return to work tomorrow. It's worth noting that most of us have been through many (long) weekends, but we never quite overcome the dread of the first workday back.

What's interesting too is the extent to which dread shapes our thoughts and actions in the moment.

Gregory Berns et al from Emory University ran a rather unpleasant experiment with 32 participants. The participants would periodically receive minor shocks while sitting in the experiment room.


2 observations:

- When given a choice, all participants chose to receive a shock sooner rather than later, even though it is the same shock and they cannot leave early after getting shocked. Waiting for something unpleasant creates an additional pain that people wanted to avoid.

- When given a choice between receiving a larger shock now and a smaller shock at an uncertain later, 3 in 10 participants preferred a larger shock now!

For these participants, the dread of that uncertain negative stimulus exceeds the negative stimulus itself!



The pain from dread is real. It's tangible, and it's no different from the pain of something negative itself. We confirm this when we take brain scans participants were scanned playing Pac-man, the dread that comes as they are about to be eaten activates the pain centre of the brain: the periaqueductal gray. This brain region activates when we are dreading something, just like it would when we are hit by bad news or when we get punched by Mike Tyson.

When we are stuck in dread, we are more inclined to alter our thoughts and actions to avoidance, to try to escape, which could lead to poorer consequences.



What's an example?

Lowenstein, Karlsson, and Seppi studied the number of logins of American investors and plotted this against the value of the S&P 500.


The black line in the graph above plots the S&P 500 index.

The grey line in the graph tracks the number of times American investors login into their investment accounts over the same period of time.

What do we notice?


There is a broad congruence between the 2. When the stock market is doing well, we login more (to get the good news).

But when the stock market is doing poorly, logins drop drastically, even though it is the period we should be logging in more to consider changes.

The pain from dread and the expected pain of the future leads to us being more inclined towards avoidance. It makes us want to escape from the problem. We want to protect ourselves, and the easiest (even if mostly ineffective) solution is to try and hide.

And this could lead to poorer consequences, just like the investors, who should be logging in and taking corrective action on their stocks.


So what can we do about dread? How can we lessen dread (especially with a dreaded workday coming up after a long weekend)?

Here, it is useful to understand that dread comes from uncertainty and awfulising (tendency to overestimate the potential seriousness or negative consequences of events)

So any attempt to reduce dread has to address these 2 things. So what are some possible actions?


1) Uncertainty is uncomfortable. We usually can't change the negative future completely, but we can introduce our own certainty. Instead of dreading the next workday, we can break it down into mini finish lines: you just need to get through the first hour or the first 50 emails. And then you can set a new finish line. Breaking up an uncertain day into certain milestones makes it easier to bear.

2) The second is leverage on how dopamine works. Dopamine makes us feel good, but it is often wrongly described as being associated with reward. In actuality, dopamine triggers in anticipation and in pursuit of a reward. You can introduce your own anticipated rewards on dreaded days: maybe it is a lunch appointment with a close friend or a favourite snack which you prepared beforehand.

3) You can create clarity, to reduce awfulising. The greater clarity you have over what is coming up, the less fearful you are. A simple way to do this comes from Tim Ferriss, what he calls fear-setting. This is a short set of questions:

- what really is the worst that could happen? So what if it happens?

- What can you do to prevent it from happening?

- if it happens, what can you do to mitigate the negative consequences?

More on fear-setting here.

4) Finally, we can distract ourselves from awful thoughts by concentrating on the present, on what we can control.

Instead of worrying about what could happen when work restarts, plan out what you can do tonight, and enjoy yourself while you can. The act of planning itself is important, and reduces dread because you signal to yourself that you actively doing something. 

bottom of page