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Coping with dread

On handling awful emotions and using our voices to come alive

By Joe Wills 

A lot of people have fear of the future right now. Climate change. War. Political divide. I read recently that even people pleased with President Trump are filled with a terrible dread of what might happen if he loses re-election.

I’m in the same boat. When I smell smoke in the air, I often feel a little wave of panic hit me, the residue of losing a home to the Camp Fire. I could scarcely wait for the rains to come this winter, checking the weather forecasts, reading the wind levels with a knot in my stomach.

I wish I knew a way to get rid of dread—I would happily see my therapy practice dwindle and read the newspaper without a clenched jaw. What I do instead sounds nutty—I pay attention to the fear. By that I mean I sit down and try to describe it, or draw what it looks or feels like, or write about it, like I’m doing here.

It changes a hidden thing to bring it into view. On the one hand, it seems less scary, not buried away in your gut or your mind. But it also is treating it with respect, like the old phrase, give the devil his due. And in so doing, you are treating yourself with respect.

I know there is a counter view to handling awful emotions like dread—why feed a fire, give it air? To which I would say, if you can distract yourself from it, turn away from it, let go of it, rejoice. Do what works for you. If there was one sure road to contentment, we would all know it by now.

What we do know is that we can’t as individuals remove all sources of dread—fix the climate, end war, end strife. We can, however, give voice to our hope, speak of injustice, come alive, each of us. Strangely, by also bringing our fears into the open, the aliveness grows even more.

This article was published on 1.23.20 by

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