The Morning Dread: Shaking Hands with Anxiety

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 expeirence. 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. 

Get in touch

12 Comments

  • Samantha Morris says:

    I can relate to this, this is me in every morning. I long for the weekends when I can try and relax

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Samantha, yes, the weekends are a blessing on that front. But maybe you could set your alarm just 5 minutes earlier and give yourself that time weekdays to lie in breath into that dread-full feeling. Maybe some information might surface…

  • Ann says:

    Thank your for this, struggling with anxiety etc post operation and dreading the dread each morning. I do practice meditation and I was a counsellor so have been further berating myself. This piece makes sense and speaks to me right now. Thank you.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ann. Sorry to hear that you are suffering those dreads after your operation. Sometimes it just helps to know that we are not alone…

  • Patricia Greensted says:

    Having left a serious comment in the “get in touch” part of this excellent blog, I’d just like to add that the”mid sleep pee” is also a feature in females. See you on the landing some time!!!

  • Jane Davis says:

    Touching reflections. Your thoughts immediately zapped me back to my long-held interest in Philosophy, specifically Kierkegaard: “Whoever has learned to be anxious in the right way has learned the ultimate.” Your reflections on the value of staying with the feeling of anxiety remind me of his idea that by doing so people could experience for themselves that “the assaults of anxiety, even though they be terrifying, will not be such that he flees from them. For him, anxiety becomes a serving spirit that against its will leads him where he wishes to go.” That phrase “serving spirit” is somehow poignant to me. Just a side note: he also wrote that someone who “maintains that the great thing about him is that he has never been in anxiety, I will gladly provide him with my explanation: that is because he is very spiritless.” I’ve gone on too long to go into how my 30s were the end of an unbroken night’s sleep. One’s 40s are ‘the gift that keeps on giving’! As they say in U.S. commercials, “But wait! There’s more!”

    • alistairappleton says:

      Hi Jane, that’s wonderful! “Serving spirit” – I think there’s something akin to that idea in Tibetan Buddhism which is the innate sacredness in ALL phenomena. That is to say, every mind state that we experience has within it the sacred energy of awakening. That’s why there are so many of those scary-looking deities. They are the painful things that wake us up.
      I’ve used that first quote of Kierkegaard in all my anxiety courses, but not the follow up. Thank so much for sharing…
      Enjoy the gift

  • Martin says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Allistair. It means a lot to me. I have been coping with this morning dread since my childhood. At least ten minutes every day before being ready to face new challenges. But I still find it too difficult to embrace all these painful feelings. I used to think that there were too many of them in my life so far so I have learned how to avoid them. I know it’s not a good way and one day I’ll learn how to accept all of them. But today it’s still beyond me. Reading your blog helps. Greetings from Poland!

    • alistairappleton says:

      Czsescsz Martin,
      Thanks for your response. It’s interesting how many people resonated with this piece. I think ‘turning towards’ is always the better option than ‘turning away’. It’s not easier, for sure, but it is richer, healthier and wiser.
      A

  • Scott says:

    Thanks for posting this Alistair.

    My understanding of the morning dreads is increased cortisol levels kicking in to wake us up. I only know this through researching my own morning anxiety symptoms. My Dr has advised taking my medication little earlier in the evening and that has slightly worked. I still dread mornings, the sick feeling in the stomach and the rush of adrenaline.

    Sometimes pulling the covers over my head seems the best option but other times I can’t settle and need to get up and face the day.

    • alistairappleton says:

      I’m not sure that cortisol alone would account for that feeling since cortisol in itself is a healthful neurotransmitter designed in short doses to wake us up. My go to is the “Basic Exercise” developed by Stanley Rosenberg where you lie still, hands laced behind the occiput, rotate your eyes to the left and hold for about a minute and then to the right for the same time. Always seems to shift me out of a fight-flight-freeze state.

  • Linda says:

    Hello Alistair,
    Go and see Anna Parkinson. Maybe she can help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

9 + six =