So many people have anxiety these days, so it’s actually not that hard a concept to raise a lot of the time. But if you’ve never had even a season of what it does to your mind and body, you cannot begin to relate as far as its realism as an existential threat. One way to describe much of what anxiety can feel like is dread. Another way much of anxiety manifests subconsciously is through the body; aches, pains, tension, etc. Another way is through dreams.
But I want to focus on the dread.
Imagine being absolutely overwhelmed with fear, and not the kind of fear that is easily dispelled. This is a kind of fear that we really cannot do anything about. For a Christian that can sound defeatist. Especially in the mode of irrepressible grief, outbound of loss that cannot be recovered comes a dread that lingers like the Grim Reaper. It is unbearable.
Dread is a presence that loiters so deep within us to become part of us that we really do not know how to shift it. Such a thing comes into our lives for a season, and our hope is that we find a way to search past it, eventually, which is no short or easy answer at all. Dread at its worst seems so fundamentally intractable that every waking moment, bar a few short reprieves, is the fright of our lives, given that the fear is so tangible that we can barely contain anything in our minds, and our heart is full of terror. We are never too far away from an out-and-out panic attack. Indeed, all it will take is just another terrifying thought that we dwell on, and it sets off a chain reaction that can leave us completely undone within minutes. And we are never too far from a paroxysm that can lead to catatonia at this point.
There is of course the double whammy of clinical depression and this dread-indwelt anxiety that runs in 150-proof strength through the season of grief. And not all grief is equal, because there are some losses that bear with them myriad layers. If we have experienced a loss that actually involves losing just about everything, dread will almost certainly follow and be a constant companion for months.
What many people will not understand about dread is just how real it is. We have no idea until we have experienced it, and when we have experienced it, we have empathy if even people we really dislike get it. This is because dread humbles and humanizes every sufferer. Indeed, the experience of an extended season of dread will teach empathy to almost anyone. The one exception here, though, is the one, or the many, who cannot bear it and resolve to drink or drug it away. They can almost not be blamed, but the fact is we learn nothing from anesthetizing yourselves, and better than numbing the pain is getting support and wise advice from a doctor who can prescribe meds and refer us on to counseling.
The first thing a person suffering dread needs is understanding. The next thing they need is understanding. And the third thing they need is understanding. Perhaps you can ask them if they are feeling the dread, and if they say yes, it is your opportunity to really step up every kind of patient support. The person will need a combination of encouragement and challenge, always couched in kindness and joy and belief in them. The best thing we can do is be a friend. The worst thing we can do is judge them, or be impatient with them, or give them flippant uncaring advice, or blame them for feeling what is beyond them to address. If, however, they’re convinced that we must understand them, they usually confirm this by actually saying the words, “Thank you, this really means a lot, because I’m just floored by this! I mean this is disabling.” It certainly does feel disabling, in the way that dread absolutely stalls all functioning.
A final note to Christians: it doesn’t matter that we are a Christian, because anxiety is a respecter of nobody, and faith in God is no ultimate protection, given that faith in and of itself is nothing about preventing experiences like dread that come because of loss or some other unavoidable factor. It would be more appropriate for Christians to consider that experiences of dread will more often equip the person suffering than speak of ‘how weak they are’. On the contrary, do not disparage someone suffering dread as being weak; they are stronger than almost anyone else you know for persevering through it.
I know many people who have fought through dread and have come out on the other side, and those who did so without anesthetizing themselves, developed hard-won wisdom, humility, capacity for empathy, and discernment. It’s worth the fight, hour by hour, minute by minute, moment by moment, one day at a time.
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on epitemnein-epitomic.blogspot.com.
Featured Image by Boram Kim