You know the feeling. The alarm goes off, and before you’ve found the button, your brain is already in the shower, fretting over the day ahead. So much work to do. How will you get it all done? Will you do OK in that big presentation? So many meetings you aren’t looking forward to. You want to pick up your daughter after school but secretly know you hardly have the time to do so.
Dread kicks in. What’s wrong with my life?
This is the scenario neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett paints in an interesting TED Talk she gave in December 2017 and in her book How Emotions Are Made.
The good news is that you don’t have to be held hostage by this spiraling a.m. anxiety. Barrett’s research points to a surprising finding about our emotions: They’re linked to physical sensations your body is feeling. That’s right, your brain reacts to physical sensations you’re feeling in the form of emotions.
In other words, you might be feeling that sense of dread as soon as you wake up because you simply didn’t sleep well, because you’re hungry, or because you feel dehydrated.
As Barrett explains:
Your brain is searching to find an explanation for those sensations in your body that you experience as wretchedness. But those sensations might not be an indication that anything is wrong with your life.
So before you go off the deep end with your morning mental swim, Barrett says ask yourself one question about what you’re feeling, just seven words:
“Could this have a purely physical cause?”
I tried this and found that quite often the answer is, yes. For me, I often wake up parched and, like most of us, have nights where I just didn’t sleep well. I paid attention to this and noticed whenever I felt that sense of dread, it went away as I woke up, drank water, and had breakfast.
But I’d like to add another seven-word question to the mix that you can use when you’re feeling that morning dread, in case your emotions aren’t just based on a physical sensation you’re experiencing in the moment.
“Could this be a signal for change?”
Some have called it Sunday Night Dread–that pit in your stomach you feel as you wind down on Sunday night and think about the day ahead tomorrow. A general unease and unhappiness nags at you. That’s the frontline. Ground zero is when you wake up in the morning and the dread is instant and intensified as you face the immediate prospects of the day ahead.
Experiencing this over and over may be a sign that it’s time to make a change and engage in a different line of work or make dramatic changes at the job you’re in.
I experienced this toward the end of my corporate days. I ignored the feeling at first, and then for too long, frankly. Eventually, I let it trigger deep introspection, which ultimately led me to leave corporate behind and embark on my current entrepreneurial journey. I’m so glad I didn’t ignore the signals my morning routine was sending me.
So don’t accept that feeling of morning dread as “just the way it is.” Use Barrett’s question to discern if there’s an underlying physical cause for what you’re feeling that morning. Use my question so that you’re not just brushing off that dread as you’re brushing your hair. Instead, look in the mirror and get honest with yourself.