Saleem: Hey y’all. Welcome back to More Than A Feeling. I’m Saleem Reshamwala.
In case you’re new here: what we do on this show is share stories, ideas, and insights on a fundamental, but totally mystifying, part of our life: our emotions. The good vibes, the bad ones, the scary, the joyful.
And we’re kicking this season off by going deep on a feeling that seems like it’s everywhere right now. A More Than A Feeling listener wrote in recently to tell us they were struggling with it:
Razz: The title of the email was just “Dread” [laughs]
Saleem: That’s Razz Terizzi, from Greeley, Colorado. And, yeah, when Razz reached out about their dread, we had to get them on the phone to hear more.
Razz: My name is Razz, um, I am a blind cartoonist, a freelance artist for almost 20 years off and on, which – it's fun. I consider it advanced fidgeting.
Saleem: I wonder if you would mind telling us the contents of that email
Razz: Yeah. Do you want me to read it?
Saleem: Please. That'd be wonderful.
Razz: Yeah. Okay. Let me beef up the text size a little bit. Aha! Okay. [reading]: Hello, Saleem and your podcast team. Apologies for the grim email title. Haha. I'm listening to your podcast. And when you asked for submissions, I thought of the feeling I get a lot: dread. I'm only now at 40 finding other people who confront dread as just a part of their lives [ducks under] and have since we were kids…
Saleem: I love how curious Razz is about their own dread…
…but they also expressed a deep longing to know who else out there feels it in some way.
Razz: …It makes me wonder how many of us there are. And if everyone feels it and just doesn't talk about it, or is it an anomaly to wake up in the middle of the night, feeling like you've fallen into the endless space between stars? [SFX reverb] I wonder if dread is a universal feeling or if it's different for everyone. Is it fear writ large and strange or something else? Thanks for making this fantastic podcast, Razz.
Saleem: This is an amazing question, Razz. I ALSO want to know if there are other people who are out there struggling with feelings of dread. And what it’s like for them. It would take serious time and energy to explore that, and that’s exactly what we’re doing!
We started putting that question out there to More Than a Feeling listeners, our friends here at Ten Percent Happier, and beyond…
Lisa: Hart: my name is Lisa. I live in Oklahoma City,
Kedar: Kedar Young, Manhattan, New York.
Lisa: I do feel the feelings of dread, every day.
Kedar: Lurking over my shoulder, creeping up into the back of my mind…
Jonathan: Jonathan Harmom. And I'm 17 years old. I'm not gonna act like I don't be worrying about stuff, cause I do.
Saleem: Our first big takeaway from this call-out is just: wow - y’all have been out there dreading a lot of stuff!
Helen: My name is Helen…
Molly: Molly Matlock. Getting up in the morning and having to deal with whatever problems that day is going to bring.
David: Hi, I'm David from New York City.
Helen: An impending sense of doom.
David: A sense of dread about what the future holds, because things are so unpredictable.
Elizabeth: My name is Elizabeth Alva.
Lindsay A: My name is Lindsay. I am from Beavercreek, Ohio.
Elizabeth: I dread communicating how I feel
Lindsay A: I feel a constant dread of the unknown.
Amy: Amy and I live in Linz, Austria.
Zoe: Zoe Morand. It's not the distant future that scares me as much as the immediate tomorrow scares me.
Amy: Oh God, what's gonna happen in the future, what if I don’t have a job at all…[fade out]
Saleem: Dread can take on a lot of different forms and intensities and, like many emotion words, can mean slightly different things to different people. So, a working definition: when we use that word, what we’re talking about in general is a scary feeling you get when you know or think that something you REALLY don’t want to have happen - is gonna happen.
Behind the scenes, we’ve been thinking about it as “fear plus time.” It’s a really uncomfortable sense of anticipation. Dread can show up around day-to-day things that just add up and wear us down.
Ashley: I'm Ashley Hamer.
Deanna: My name is Deanna Zandt.
Ashley: I sort of dread meeting new people because I assume they're not gonna like me.
Alfredo: My name is Alfredo Ramirez, and I'm from Miami, Florida.
Linsday R: My name is Lindsay. Emptying the dishwasher or doing laundry or vacuuming.
Alfredo: The small fuckups.
Deanna: I dread having to speak to another human on the phone.
Saleem: Then there’s the really big things – often out of our control – and where the stakes feel very very high.
Andrea: My name is Andrea,
Betsy: Betsy Loving
Andrea: Rejection, loneliness, abandonment, and mostly betrayal.
Ali Mattu: So many things… [fade out on laughter]
Betsy: The big dread that I guess I would have to name is advanced old age, alone.
Molly: Certainly the political landscape right now feels like hehhhh.
Betsy: These external events are exacerbating everything these days. Covid, ugly, hateful, politics, war, climate change….
Saleem: That first listener who wrote us about dread, Razz Terizzi, described it as – a “falling into the space between stars” feeling. That’s some poetic and very real existential dread.
Razz: It's like that feeling that you're in the middle of something really vast and unknowable, that like you're tiny and all alone. It may just be like the dread of dying and knowing that there will come a point like when you stop…
[enter theme music]
Razz: …But the universe continues on without you. It’s a strange feeling.
Saleem: And now that we know so much of this fear-plus-time is out there, we can’t just leave it hanging. We gotta explore it. Collect some helpful ideas for working with it. And, most importantly, create some community around it. Because the worst thing about dread is that a lot of us feel like we’re going through it alone.
Saleem: Have you talked much with other people about dread? Or do you feel like it's something you can bring up with people easily?
Razz: Oh, gosh, no. In my experience, a lot of people, they want to stay on the surface of things. So like, if you bring it up, they wanna shut you down. They're like, “No, no, I don't wanna talk about this.” Which honestly, like, that's fair. Like a lot of people don't wanna be scared by these big thoughts…
Saleem: Silence and loneliness around dread makes it so much worse. Luckily, not everyone shies away from the topic.
Razz: Hi Petey. Really? Now? Sorry the dog has come in. I'm trying to have a serious conversation, Petey!
Saleem: She's comforting you. She hears you talking about dread, you know…
Razz: She does. It's hard to feel dread when you have a dog. I don't think dogs experience existential dread [laughs].
[theme music swells]
Saleem: Y'all I'm genuinely excited to kick off season two of More Than A Feeling with a full on exploration of dread with all of you. Our mission is to be a little more like Petey the dog, and break through the silence around this big emotion. We’re gonna look at the range of different dread experiences you’re sharing with us and find out if we can all feel a little better, even when we’re anticipating the worst. We’re calling this “The Dread Project.” It’s got its own website - Dreadproject.com.
And it’s a special mini-series that we don’t want you to just listen to. This one’s gonna be interactive. There are five easy, fun little experiments you can try. I’m gonna be doing them too. The idea is to help us all find ways to cope better with the dread that shows up in our own lives. And you’ll be doing it along with thousands of other listeners. We’ll tell you how to join later on in the episode, so be sure to listen for that.
Today, though, we’re going to start with some insights into why there’s so much of these dread feelings out there – especially right now. And how some little shifts in perspective can let a lot more light into some of the dark places we go to. Because it turns out dread might serve a purpose that could actually be, pretty helpful. The Dread Project begins in just a minute.
Saleem: Okay, so The Dread Project is meant to be interactive, creative, hopeful and, we think, helpful. Whether your dread is attached to that next Zoom call or family dinner, or whether it’s the rapidly escalating climate crisis, [crowd SFX] total political upheaval, talk of nuclear war, a global economy on the edge of collapse. There’s clearly so much dread out there right now, that even some of the mental health professionals who help us navigate our negative feelings are struggling with it.
Ali Mattu: I feel a earthquake every few months. Like, what's, what's gonna happen with that? And concerns about the world that now my daughter and, and my newborn son – what, what is this world that they're gonna be inheriting?
Saleem: This is Dr. Ali Mattu, a clinical psychologist. He also teaches about mental health issues on his YouTube channel, The Psych Show.
Ali Mattu: I live in Northern California, so for me it's about climate change. The wildfire season, which seems to be like year round now in California.
Saleem: Over the past couple years there's been so much going on. And there seems to be almost this dread cloud hanging over everything. People have mentioned both political tensions, climate change, of course the pandemic. But I'm curious, how much of that you’re seeing and whether you think there has been a shift in the amount of dread people are feeling, or if there's something, some better way to describe that.
Ali Mattu: Yeah, I think I'm gonna have a good answer for you about that in about ten years. We're so in the middle of this that it's, it's very hard to know. I do know that pretty much every single mental health professional I know is beyond full and completely at the burnout point, and it is so hard to find a mental health professional right now. During the pandemic, rates to the ER for psychiatric emergencies, those went up.
Saleem: Quick disclaimer here. Ali says we don’t yet know exactly why mental health professionals are seeing this happen. Even under normal circumstances, it’s not unusual for adults to receive a mental health diagnosis at some point. And anxiety disorders are the most common. But we do seem to be living through some particularly dread-inducing years.
Ali Mattu: Part of it's related to Covid, part of it's related to our political climate, um, part of it's related to technology, is everyone has had some kind of experience with this stuff. We were all impacted by the pandemic in some way, and we've all been impacted with polarization in some way. Like, dread is the perfect word to use to describe my relationship with some people in my family and me thinking about spending time with certain people leads to massive dread. [laughs] That's, there's, there is no other word to describe it. [insert low, pulsing music] It's not a fear. It's not a worry. It’s dread.
Ali: And I didn't have that a few years ago. I didn't. That has changed. I'm dreading this midterm election we have in the United States, because I'm, I'm thinking about the conversations I'm gonna have to have with certain people. And I just don't wanna have them.
Saleem: Every generation has their own challenges to tackle, but even if we had been born into a period of peace and tranquility, dread would probably still be with us to some degree.
Ali Mattu: We know that a good chunk of our emotional temperament is genetic. Some people are born pretty fearless and they're the kids you see on the playground that are climbing a little bit higher, they're doing stuff that I never did cause I was terrified. Uh, and then you have the opposite too, right? You have kids that have a lot of what we call behavioral inhibition to the unknown. They press the brakes and they look around for a long time before they move forward. And then those people turn into adults and there's a lot of diversity here. So I think if you're someone who is more likely to experience dread, that keeps you stuck, maybe you're someone who is born with the volume turned up on anxiety.
Saleem: Whether or not your anxiety meter is turned to eleven early on, it’s normal to feel some level of dread as you move through the different stages of life.
Ali: Throughout our lives, there are different fears that become more or less normal. Like a very young child, um, there's a certain age at which they develop stranger danger. Before that, you give a baby to anyone, and you know, some babies are different, but most babies are just fine. As long as they're being held and fed, they don't care who they're with. But then at a certain age, stranger danger turns on and they're only comfortable with people that they know. Similarly a fear of the dark, fear of supernatural, fear of death, these things turn on at different ages. And when you become a middle schooler and a high schooler, the primary fear becomes social rejection. And that tends to become a fear that sticks with, with us for our lives.
You know and lives can change. If you end up taking care of others, if you have children, if you have aging parents in your lives, your dread might turn more to how am I gonna take care of them? It might turn to finances as you get more responsibilities and work, um your stress can focus more on those things. But definitely this stuff changes with time and it definitely changes with experience.
Saleem: So all these factors contribute to the levels of dread we experience throughout our lives. Genetics matter. Life stages matter. And the people around us, that’s a big one, too. For example, say you’re at the age in childhood where you’re starting to think about death. And the adults around you don’t think you should be having that conversation yet.
Rachel Menzies: I'd see roadkill and I'd ask if that was a dead animal. And my dad would say, “No, it's just a stuffed toy. It's just stuffed toys all alongside the side of the road.”
Saleem: That’s how it went for Dr. Rachel Menzies. She’s a clinical psychologist from Sydney, Australia, where there’s apparently a lot of roadkill.
Saleem: You don't believe that too long, right?
Rachel: Yeah, that's right. There's only so many stuffed toys that can be on the side of a highway…
Saleem: Despite this stuffed toy mythology, Rachel grew up to be a leading expert on death anxiety and mental health conditions. And she’s written and edited a whole stack of books with titles like Mortals: How the Fear of Death Shaped Human Society, and Curing the Dread of Death. Rachel told us that kids are thinking about death from a really young age. Even if adults don’t realize it.
[fade out music]
Rachel: It emerges in stages from around the ages of three to four to 10, and then by the age of 10, most children have a complete understanding of death, even though we might not realize it.
Saleem: This is when kids are looking for answers, and if they get the message that death is something to fear, or to avoid thinking or talking about, they can really take that to heart.
Rachel: We know with children that the way people talk to them about death is really important. They tend to have less, uh, dread around death when they've had it explained in a really matter of fact sort of objective way. Just explaining the process of death, what that involves, what that means that tends to help children cope better. And of course life experiences in general play a big role. If someone was quite sick when they were younger or saw other people be quite sick, those sorts of things can really create that existential dread as people get older.
Saleem: I'm from a very mixed tradition home, lots of different traditions mixing in the house. And one of them, an occasional duty that a person might have is washing a body of someone who's passed. And I can say that in the right circumstance, there can be a kind of peace that comes with that activity.
Rachel: Hmmm… Culture, I think, in general is one of the biggest things that shapes people's attitudes to death. You gave a great example of how some cultures have a much more intimate relationship with death, whereas in a lot of Western cultures, that is not the case whatsoever. People will die in hospitals or in nursing homes and their body is dealt with by the funeral industry. And it's a very sanitized version of death.
Saleem: Human mortality is such a big thing to try to grapple with. Once it shows up we can spend the rest of our lives thinking about it. It’s a full on legitimate career for philosophers and religious leaders. We're gonna take a quick break but, in a minute, our friend Razz is back to tell us a bit about their dread origin story. There’s a lot to learn from how their dread started during childhood, and the coping skills they developed over time.
Saleem: Razz Terizzi was only 6 or 7 when they started experiencing their first bouts of existential dread. They’d be lying in bed awake at night. While everyone else was asleep.
Razz: Everything is just dark and quiet and like lonely. And like the sense of people around you just becomes missing when you're a kid. And I think too, like around the age when this started, I think I had experienced death in the family and, in spite of like a lot of the religious upbringing, and indoctrination of my family, the answers people were providing me… I was just like, “that doesn't seem realistic or right. Like, I wish that was true, but that can't be right, because like I've seen pets die. I've seen great grandparents die, and they're not anywhere. They're just gone.” [laughs] And I think, as a kid that that's haunting, and it can instill in you the sense that like, “That's going to happen to me.”
Saleem: If you’d talked to an adult about your dread when you were a kid, what do you now wish they would've said? Or what would you yourself say to that child version of you?
Razz: I had brought it up, I think, and I often just got dismissed, like, you know, “you're being pessimistic” or something. I think I would've liked, uh – and I tend to talk to my nephews this way too – I would've liked to have it just acknowledged, even if the adults in my life have to come back and say like, “You know, I don't know. That's a hard question, but I feel that too.” I think kids know that adults don't know everything. So sometimes it's okay to have that confirmed, uh, with these big questions.
Saleem: There's one hopeful thing in what you just said, hopeful for me personally. When my kids ask me something, there's lots of times where I'm like, “Whoa, my dude, I don't know. That's hard. Ooh! Goodness.” And so it's reassuring to know that might not be the worst possible answer.
Razz: Well, I always wonder how it is that, like, adults forget what it was to be a kid.
Razz: Like so many adults forget that. [music] But like kids, they're little people. They have their own thoughts. Like they're having understandings and, uh, realizations coming online. Like, “Oh my God. Is that what the world is like?”
Saleem: If you ask Rachel Menzies that question, it kind of is what the world is like. Being human and mortal is weird! And we do have to find a way to think about those things and somehow be okay with all of it in our own way. And, Rachel told me, there are five existential concerns that her field has identified. Death is just one of them.
Rachel: So the five main existential concerns which have been identified are death.
Meaning or meaninglessness: So how do I find meaning in a world that doesn't have any inherent meaning?
Identity: So, who am I as a person?
Uh, isolation. The fact that there is an unbridgeable gap between me and other people that even, uh, I, I might have been with my partner for ten years, but I'll never truly know what it's like to live life behind his set of eyes.
And existential guilt, which is the idea that there are an infinite number of choices I could make in this world, and I can't try all of them. So I have to live with the consequences of picking one and not knowing if I've made the right choice.
Saleem: These are big questions that concern all of us. And Rachel said she thinks a lot of seemingly tiny, everyday dreads could fall into some of those categories. Even if we don’t realize it. Which might be why the stakes can feel so high with dread.
Rachel: We might be dreading going to work on Monday because we find that our work has no meaning for us and it doesn't give us any feeling of connection to other people. That would be an example of a day to day feeling of dread that probably would tie into those existential concerns. Uh, we might be dreading hanging out with a particular group of people because we don't feel that connection to them when we're with them. [music] I'd like to just emphasize to people that these are normal things to think about and normal things to feel dread about, that everyone has to learn to grapple with in some way across their life. So I think it's more a question of what extent are they experiencing it to, rather than are they experiencing it at all?
Saleem: That is a crucial question. At a time when there’s so much going on that’s actually dreadful, how do we know if the dread we’re feeling is too much? I mean, maybe it’s exactly the right amount of dread! I asked Dr. Ali Mattu how he knows if someone’s having so much dread that they might need some professional help.
Ali Mattu: So what I look for is what's the thought that's coming up for you and how long is this thought sticking around? A lot of, um, mental health challenges, what they do is they rob you of being in the moment. What I think is really dreadful [laughing] about dread is how it can keep you stuck. Like it can keep you from taking any action besides thinking about this horrible event that, that may or may not occur in the future. But if we stay in those moments and just think about those things, dread can really be a barrier and a hindrance and a villain. If it's happening a lot and it's making it hard for you to live your life, that's when it's a problem. And that's when we need to intervene.
Saleem: This seems like a good time to emphasize that during our Dread Project, we’re gonna be offering up ideas for you to think about and try. But please remember that this is in no way a substitute for working directly with a mental health professional. And if you find yourself struggling with difficult emotions at any point, and you’re looking for some direct assistance, we have some resources for you in our show notes. And whatever steps you might take to work with your dread, part of coping better is recognizing that this feeling does have some value.
Ali: That's where I think it's important to remember why we even have this emotion. In so many ways it's, it's such a adaptive thing. The purpose of dread is not to paralyze you. The purpose of dread is to help prepare you, is to help you think about what might happen. It's to help you take actions that you can right now.
Saleem: Oh, interesting.
Ali: A healthy amount of dread is needed to show up to work and to make a earthquake preparedness plan and all of that kind of stuff
Saleem: Sometimes, Ali says, the actions we need to take don’t look all that active, but they’re all we can do in the situation we’re in:
Ali: We can be with the people we want to be with. We can move forward in our lives, in our work, in our families, in our friendships. [music] And that's what I'm hoping people can get out of this is learning what are some ways when I am stuck with this dread that I can move forward and take action.
Saleem: This is such a key point. Working with dread does not mean we kick it out of our lives. But our relationship with it can evolve and improve. That was one of the most fascinating and inspiring things about digging into dread with our listener Razz. They’ve been living with overwhelming dread feelings for so long, but they’ve also developed some internal resources for getting unstuck and moving forward.
Saleem: It sounds like you still have dread, like you still feel dread. Of course. Otherwise you wouldn't have sent the email. How has it changed shape or what's different about that dread now?
Razz: Oh, yeah, it's definitely still there. Um, I think, uh, it is just more nuanced. And more full and kind of more integrated in my life. I think as somebody who feels dread like kind of constantly, um, I've kind of just developed sort of a, a strange peace with it. [chuckles] I'm grateful that I've been able to get some really like targeted therapy to deal with some of this stuff. I've done a lot of training where I just have taught myself to be like, “Yes, you're hurting. This sucks. You feel it. You don't have to dig at it and make it worse. Go to sleep.” [laughs] But for a long time, before I knew those techniques, I would just dig a hole deeper and deeper into kind of the despair part of dread. I'm glad I made it through that, but like, dread can definitely eat you if you're not cognizant of what's happening there.
We’re just kind of like strange tubes of meat that live on this rock that's just flying through space and that's so ludicrous and funny, but also like sad and strange. But that doesn't mean that everything is meaningless, you know? You make your own meaning out of life and that can help mitigate some of the dread. I may be a grain of sand, but I can be significant to the other grains of sand that live around me.
Saleem: Hmm. I love the idea of us as tiny grains of sand that still matter to other grains of sand.
Razz: They, they do matter. Like we matter, even if it's only to each other. [music] There is something valuable in like the honesty and, um, knowing like where you stand in existence and kind of, uh, accepting that like you can still make good out of being so small. So it's, it's kind of a, it can be easy to oscillate between dread and despair and like awe.
Saleem: This has been a pretty joyful conversation about dread, so that makes me feel good.
Razz: It's wonderful to talk to you guys. I'm looking forward to this project so much.
Saleem: What’s pretty clear from everything we just heard, is that our dread can be so much more than just a dark, scary, tunnel we have to travel through all alone. There are ways we can work with it that lead us toward a greater sense of purpose and belonging.
Saleem: Now here’s where we actually give you the details about The Dread Project Listener Challenge and how you can be part of it. Our team has collected a pretty incredible range of expert input about the nature of dread. And starting Monday, November 14th, there’ll be five days of short, fun, podcast episodes in your feed. Each one has a 5 to 10 minute experiment you can try, to work with your own dread.
For example, In our first dread challenge we look at the stories we tell ourselves about dread, and how a little rewrite might help.
Hala: You walked into the thing you were afraid of, you turned and faced the thing that you are dreading, and you heard it out.
Saleem: We’ll look at dread about climate change, and see if we can make it less paralyzing and even a little energizing.
Patty: Nothing is going to eliminate these overwhelming feelings. But we can make choices to engage with them in what we would call titrated or manageable ways. Right? Which is not never, and it's not always, right? It's somewhere in the middle. It's that dance…
Saleem: We’re gonna make the heavy weight of dread feel a little lighter by grabbing a pen or a marker…
Naomi: You wanna see what I've drawn so far?
Saleem: Oh my gosh. You've been drawing during this conversation.
Saleem: And we’ll try a mindfulness practice about death that might surprise you with some laughter and some joy.
Alua: I don't know how much time I have. I want to take time to look at the hummingbirds in awe and listen to my niece, laugh and look into the eyes of my beloved and feel loved. Yes, it's coming. But until that day I'm gonna live.
Saleem: Here’s how to sign up: Go to dreadproject.com. Try right now. And enter your email address. That way you can get the links to new podcast episodes as they’re released, and get the insights and exercises from the challenge right in your inbox. Sign up for the challenge before it starts on Monday, November 14th and you’ll be doing it alongside thousands of other listeners. But if you’re hearing this a little late, never fear, you can still sign up to do it on your own. At dreadproject.com, you can also send us a voice memo letting us know what you think of this project. We would love to hear your feedback, and you might hear yourself in an episode!
Saleem: Before we sign off today, I want to leave you with some advice from one of today’s guests, Dr. Ali Mattu, for how to approach these exercises in a safe and constructive way.
Ali: Whenever you're using a tool, if it is getting to a place where it's, it's bringing up something that is too much, it's okay to back off. Sometimes people think like they have to go straight to the biggest traumatic stuff that they've experienced in life. And no, you don't. You, you absolutely don't. You want to be taking on things that feel manageable for you right now. So trust yourself and if you feel overwhelmed, back off.
Saleem: That’s perfect advice for pretty much everything we're gonna talk about in this miniseries.
Saleem: More Than A Feeling is produced by Reva Goldberg, Yasmeen Khan, Stacia Brown, Palace Shaw, and Kim Buikema. Ben Newman is co-producer of The Dread Project. Our executive producer is Jen Poyant. Fact checking for this episode by Jeanette Beebe. Scoring and mixing by Matt Boynton of Ultraviolet Audio. Connor Donahue is our manager of Technical Operations. More Than A Feeling is a production of Ten Percent Happier.
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