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The Morning Dread: Shaking Hands with Anxiety

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

A horrible year of anxiety completely ruined my sleep cycle.

I used to sleep like a log. Like my father in fact, who falls asleep instantly and wakes early each morning. I used to sleep like that. A satisfying black-out with no consequences that I can remember. I simply got up and started my day.

Five years ago, I had a horrible year of anxiety and stress-related depression which completely ruined my sleep cycle. Gradually, year by year, I have come back to relative stability with my sleep. I drop off easily and I only wake now for the mid-sleep pee break which seems to be a feature of getting older in a male body.

But there is something that I experience (and I am conscious that many of my therapy clients experience it too) and that is the morning dread.

A black sense of unease pins me to the bed

It’s hard to put into words, but I definitely do not spring out of bed like a cocker spaniel eager for sniffs any longer. When I awake there is often a black sense of unease and anxiety which pins me to the bed. Often I just get up anyway, driven by a work schedule or latterly a meditation schedule which requires early mornings and extended sessions. And usually, the dread goes away with verticality.

But, of late, I have been more and more intrigued by this feeling.

Following the advice that I gamely hand out to my dread-filled clients, I have taken each morning this month as an opportunity to reach down into that feeling and stay with it.

Ignoring the ‘beautiful monsters’ of our being

The Buddhist teacher Tsoknyi Rinpoche has a lovely image of “shaking hands with the beautiful monsters” of our experience. Those sensations of dread, or fear, or inexplicable anger that we habitually ignore, these are the ‘beautiful monsters’ of our being that we need to befriend. Offering the hand shake of awareness to these things can open up a wonderfu l spray of wisdom.

Of course, habitually we don’t shake hands with such feelings of dread. We follow the usual path of suppressing, indulging or ignoring. (Interestingly, Tsoknyi Rinpoche adds a 4th response: applying a special method.)

Returning to my morning dread, for example, I might hate myself for feeling dreadful and want to paper it over with coffee or punishing early rising – which would be suppression.

Or I might lie in bed spiralling down into a heavy layer of thinking about the feeling, telling myself dread-full stories about why my life is ruined etc. That woud be an example of indulgence.

I might simply pretend I’m not feeling it – which, I’m beginning to see, might have been what I was doing all those years when I thought I ‘slept like a log’ – which is ignoring or dissociating.

And finally, – and I’ve been very guilty of this one – I might do some special thing in order to get rid of/ ‘work with’ the dread, like having a glass of salty orange juice by the bed to bring up my blood suga; or doing some heart breathing; or (though this is not my style) saying some peppy affirmations about every day being a gift etc. This is Rinpoche’s ‘applying a special method’.

It’s amazing how I wake up with my body tied in a punishing knot

What I am increasingly learning to do is just to stay with it, without adding anything extra.

Get myself comfortable in bed. (It’s amazing how often I wake up with my body tied in a punishing knot). Spread out like a starfish if there’s space . And take a few breaths into the body that feels the dread. Turn towards it rather than try and do something with it.

What does dread actually feel like in the body? Recently, I’ve noticed a whole pattern of tension and pain in my shoulders, neck and ribcage. A black vacuum in my solar plexus and dense, painful hardness in my heart. There’s a grey mist of anxious tendrils all around that often float up in to anxious thoughts.

It’s not unbearable. It’s unpleasant and mostly it’s rather amorphous. But crucially, it’s real.

We end up living in a perpetual avoidance manoeuvre

When we habitually turn away from all the things we don’t like about our experience, we end up turning away from almost every thing that’s real. And we end up living in a perpetual avoidance manoeuvre.

So, even though my morning dread is grim – and as yet unfathomable – it is at least real to me. It is the raw material of my day, and it gives me the impulse to be a bit more gentle with myself.

I don’t leap out of bed and huff off to the meditation room, banging cupboard doors and noisily empying the dishwasher at 5.30 (as Daniel kindly feeds back to me). Instead I take an extra ten minutes in the warmth of the bed and see what the dread needs.

People who can shake hands with their monsters are really nice to be around

It almost always needs love and tenderness. So I try and stay with it a bit longer and then when I do get up, I take it with me in my bones and muscles. I walk down to the meditation room carrying that dread with me like as sacred guest who’s got delicate bones and needs to be cushioned from the coldness of the morning.

Shaking hands with the beautiful monsters does allow them to become beautiful. Crucially it also allows us to see them, acknowledge them and honour them in other people.

We are all walking around with our dread, our anxiety, or bone-ratttling anger. Most of us are supressing them, indulging them, ignoring them or doing special transformative ju-jitsu on them all the time. We are so wrapped up in all this avoidant effor that we don’t have much time for the rest of the world. But the minority of people who can shake hands with these aspects of life are really nice to be around. They would never judge your beautiful monsters because theirs are crawling all over them like familiar pets.

So maybe the morning dread was a gift. My body’s probably been feeling it my whole life long but, for various reasons, I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge it when I was younger. (My younger self was a Swiss cheese of dissociation). But nowadays, the beautiful monsters come knocking and every morning is a chance, once again, to drop my defences and offer my hand. Over and over.

I’d love to know your thoughts about the morning dread. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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I achingly relate to the morning dread and it's scary, raw monsters. Thank you for this Alastair and reminding me to turn inward with compassion for myself and what haunts me. Making friends with myself is the hardest of all, yet the most rewarding. As I do, I feel the resistance melting and am able to access a tenderness that is most needed. So very grateful.😊

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i woke this morning for the very first time in my life with 'dread' ... and so it is how life brings us together as one. this is our shared experience ,and by being shared it is warmed by love and grace. thank you so much for writing this and posting it. it has soothed my very messy day of the soul , day of the dread. and so if i have learned something here, i want to , it's that dear dread , i love you, for you are a part of me today and together we shall greet our day and stay with one another and play. ~ warmest thanx alistair , kate .

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