On dread

Published on 5 February 2023 at 14:05


I have always experienced dread. Not all the time, but recurrently. I suspect that many people do. Dread is inherent in the human condition, but is commonly held at bay by our connections to others.

Dread concerns the incipient dissolution of our life or way of life, our work, our identity, society and civilisation. More fundamentally, it is a fear of the dissolution of our ego and of all meaning.

When we are busy with others, or feel closely and intimately involved with an other, then we do not experience dread. It comes on us when we are alone. Perhaps when we wake in the night and are assailed by a tsunami of particles of fear that have no clear focus.

Dread is a feature of infancy as Melanie Klein outlined. The baby is fearful of the death drive within. Perhaps more plausibly we can construe this as a dread evoked by a vague awareness of the pull of entropy that is in all living things and leads inevitably to death. It is the ministrations of the mothering one that keep this dread at bay, that soothe and seduce us gently into a shared world of language and meaning. If we find our place in this community of meaning, then we feel held and supported in the forward path of life.

When we are traumatised, the illusion of safety is shattered. We are then faced not only with the impact of the trauma itself, but also with the influx of existential dread that pours through the rip in the social fabric in which we have been swaddled. In trauma, our sense of connection to others is torn and we feel again the terror of being alone in an indifferent world.

The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut knew about this. He postulated that ‘disintegration anxiety’ is the deepest anxiety a human being can experience. It is held at bay by the connections we form with others that sustain our sense of self and regulate our states of emotional arousal. He called these connections ‘selfobjects’ because they are neither self nor other but are the functions of connection formed with others. Empathy, via the selfobject connection, soothes and sustains us; its absence disintegrates us. What we fear most, Kohut argued, is the breakup of the structure of our self, often precipitated by the absence of empathy.

Many people use pathological means to ward off states of dread. These include: use of drugs and alcohol; compulsive sexuality and addiction to porn; seeking experiences of adrenaline-inducing high stimulation; exerting power over others; evoking dread and terror in others; talking incessantly; compulsive spending and buying. and seizing upon an idea or cause that is then pursued obsessively. Those who engage in these pursuits usually have no idea what they are doing and why. This is because dread is inherently inarticulate. People will say they are anxious about A or B or C – but they usually cannot state with awareness that they experience dread since dread is amorphous.

In recent years, our society has become increasingly prone to dread as social structures have broken down. We have become atomised. Long term jobs, careers for life, that used to provide a sense of identity, value, and community, have all gone. Old established communities have died – the remnants now infested by addicts and dealers. Work security has gone. High street shops have gone. Local police have gone. Most pubs have gone. If we attempt to phone any company or organisation, or our GP, we encounter a computer that responds with a variety of recorded instructions and platitudes. Those who look for love no longer expect to find this amongst people they meet in the course of work and social activities. Instead they look online, a medium where a computer image is literally all that matters initially.

The recent phenomena of lockdowns have greatly exacerbated this isolation. People who lived alone spent months in literal isolation, deprived of hugs, sex, or other forms of physical contact. We need the presence of another warm living body in order to feel safe. For some, this may be a dog or a cat. The absence of connection has led to a huge rise in a range of mental health conditions. These are primarily states of anxiety and/or depression.

People may feel they do not know why they are anxious, or they may feel this indicates something wrong with them – perhaps something that should be treated with a pharmaceutical product. The truth may be that they are simply experiencing what we all potentially experience – the existential dread inherent in being alive. It is the dread normally kept at bay by feeling part of a community.

Dread is often externalised. The free-floating fear becomes focused on a target that comes to represent the danger, such as a particular group of people or some phenomenon that is perceived as presenting a threat of annihilation – such as a virus, nuclear war, communism or other ideologies, or climate change. All of these may indeed present real dangers, but they take on the function of a focus for the dread. At the same time, they enable bonding and connection with others who share the same concerns. They thus counter amorphous dread in two ways, by providing a focus for the fear and also a community to be part of.

There is another aspect of our current dread that is both obvious once articulated and yet seemingly enormously difficult for people to grasp. Just as Lacan pointed out how human beings are born into a world of culture and language that pre-exists our arrival, and in which we must find our place amongst the signifiers or psychologically perish, so we have now created a manufactured world that we are also born into and cannot live outside of. If we look around in our homes and streets, unless we live in a very rural area, it is hard to see anything at all that has not been manufactured using energy derived from burning fossil fuels. This applies to almost every element of our current lives – our clothes, food, all the materials of and in our homes, everything we use throughout the day, and everything we see in the street. This machine we have created, with all its vast interlocking software of human functions, is so utterly pervasive that many people seem unable to grasp its existence – although they feel its all-encompassing and imprisoning control. This blindness to the medium in which we currently dwell results in a range of potentially ruinous reactions concerned with dismantling the machine without appreciation of the consequences. We long for dissolution of the machine and yet unconsciously dread that it is doing just that.

Phil Mollon


  1. I have written of dread in two of my books: Remembering Trauma, 2nd Edition [Whurr/Wiley, 2002] and Releasing the Self: The Healing Legacy of Heinz Kohut [Whurr/Wiley, 2001]