Dread and our Troubled Hearts – Part 1
We encounter many people who cannot live into the potential of their lives. Constrained by anguishing emotional and relational cycles, our work is usually with people who, understandably, just want the pain and chaos to stop. Genuine inner freedom is a faint aspiration. As helpers we are drawn into their world and if we pay attention we build a deep understanding of how complex and difficult life can be. Filled with emotional and relational snarls that entangle, our clients stumble and often loose their footing.
One way to think about these hindrances to client well-being and freedom is to make some differential distinctions at two qualitative levels. The first level might involve the struggles and psychological fallout we face in our attempt to resolve and move beyond life’s problems, tragedies, and suffering. These are the emotionally and behaviorally salient symptoms that propel our clients into our offices and clinics. Think about anxieties that are unbound, post trauma reactions or grief responses to loss, relationship distresses, an eating disorder, and many others.
Second, an often related but experientially different level of distress involves a more latent, sometimes unformulated dimension, which emerges from the deeper echoes of our humanity. Broadly, this level includes, among other things, our need for a sense of purpose and belonging, our identity, and our standing before God. It encompasses the snags in our personality style, the deeper yet problematic emotional patterns, developmental deficits, and the troublesome self-concepts that derail our efforts to flourish and live into our potential in the kingdom of God.
Important to understanding therapeutic change, however, is the way in which these qualitatively distinct but entwined dimensions of experience act in concert to disrupt therapeutic progress. While significant growth is possible through increased knowledge and skill development, most of the stalls in therapy and spiritual growth are not due to lack of insight or trying. At the risk of oversimplifying, I want to contrast an emphasis on lack of skills and knowledge as culprits to lack of progress by suggesting that intractable blockages to growth and change are often not detected at the level of rational processes (they symptom level). Instead our most adhesive troubles are embedded and embodied within implicit relational and emotional organizing patterns that keep clients stuck in the malaise of their particular difficulties. We can all understand that sometimes we are our own worst enemy. When our clients act as saboteurs of their own progress, complicit in the ongoing turmoil they so desperately wish to escape, they are often deflated and confused. Why do I do the things I don’t want to? Why do I not do the things I want to do? (This dilemma can generally be linked to our second level – that of meaning and identity)
Before we continue however, I want us to pivot and contemplate the experience of dread. Although we can think about dread in a variety of ways I want to focus our discussion of dread as a nuanced comparative to anxiety and fear. To differentiate, consider the notion of dread as an admixture of fear and anxiety frequently containing both the presence of material danger combined with various intensities of anxiety, be it free floating, obsessive or phobic in nature. Dread is qualitatively different from anxiety or fear in its pervasively existential quality and temporal inevitability. While fear is often associated to real dangers and anxiety with possible but most often unlikely future scenarios, dread involves the vulnerability to a future certainty whose actual danger remains in question.
This variance is distinguishable biologically. Recent fMRI studies suggest subtle distinctions between the neurobiology of dread and anxiety. Berns (2006) and his colleagues were able to demonstrate that dread, usually thought of as an emotion based on fear and anxiety influenced by prior learning, also has a significant “attentive component” (p. 756) which takes time into consideration. It seems the experience of dread involves living within the established time frame of an ever-nearing inevitability. This is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of dread: an ever-approaching certainty from which there is no escape. Attention can be diverted, distracted or escaped from momentarily, but dread promises a certitude from which we cannot discharge.
For the next 4 weeks I want to discuss the experience of dread as a spoiler to therapeutic and spiritual growth. In ways that deeply resonate with Christ’s call to “not let your hearts be troubled” (John 14:1 & 27) building our understanding of dread as key to the source of our trouble will go a long way freeing us to live into our peaceable potential.
Berns, G. S., Chappelow, J., Cekic, M., Zink, C. F., Pagnoni, G., & Martin-Skurski, M. E. (2006). Neurobiological substrates of dread. Science, 312, 754-758.