For the first time ever, a study has investigated how your brain creates the sense of dread. Whether it’s a surgery or a nerve-rattling presentation, scientists have found that it actually has nothing to do with the fear or anxiety you experience during the actual event.
The sense of dread that lingers in your body, often overwhelming it, is instead caused by your paying too much attention beforehand to what you imagine is going to be unpleasant. In other words, it’s worrying in advance that is invariably and definitively worse than the actual event.
The research essentially proved that your brain assigns a cost to waiting for something bad to happen — so that thing is worse if it’s delayed in the future, because that cost continues to mount.
The answer is to avoid concentrating on the unpleasant event to come — that is, to distract your mind. The sense of dread will disappear if you can do so. The researchers discovered this finding in a study of 32 people, who were plugged into a brain scanner and received quick electric shocks to the top of their left feet. When the researchers determined the maximum pain each person could deal with, then came a series of nearly 100 cues.
Each one had a voltage level to deal with and knowledge of how long they would have to wait for a shock to happen. For example, they received 60% of maximum pain after 27- second elapses, 90% of maximum pain after three seconds, or 30% after nine seconds. Each person was given certain options, then they received the shock. While they waited for the shock, researchers studied their brain activity in order to understand the dread response.
Of the group, 23 people experienced “mild” dread, choosing a short delay for any voltage — they didn’t want to experience more pain, they just wanted to get it over with. Nine people experienced “extreme” dread — they didn’t want to wait, no matter what, and chose whichever option got them through the experience the quickest.
There was one big difference between the two groups. The extreme people had lots of activity in the part of the pain matrix that involves attention. This meant that they expended much more attention to the impending shock, feeding the dread response.
Okay, so what does this all mean? It means an unpleasant procedure isn’t what you dread, but rather the waiting time. Knowing this, you can tackle it. It comes in the form of self-distraction. Dramatic uses include being hypnotized or learning the art of self-hypnosis. Mild uses involve losing yourself in a book, keeping busy, basically doing anything but thinking of the procedure to come.
After all, it’s not going to change anything — thinking of it is just feeding the dreaded notion that will grow larger than it needs to. For all the worriers out there — know that you’re not doing yourself any good at all.