Dread of the work week: who hasn’t felt it? Kids feel it before school, adults feel it before work. Often called the Sunday Scaries or the Sunday Blues, this miserable version of anxiety can rob us of valuable time to recharge. But it doesn’t have to.
Our society values maximum productivity and most of us are working right at the edge of our capacity all the time, at the tipping point to burn out. The dread of that work environment makes Sunday pretty scary.
The key to beating the Sunday Scaries is to understand how dread works, and then to face it head on. The source of work week dread come from two places: overstimulating work environments or inadequate recharge on the weekends.
Dread and the Sunday Scaries
The Sunday Blues are driven by dread, an emotion researchers consider unique from anxiety. Dread is that terrible feeling we have when we anticipate pain; but where anxiety drives us to avoid pain, dread drives us to get it over with. That’s why in one study, research subjects experiencing dread of electric shocks were willing to take a higher shock right away rather than wait for a milder one later.
But if the Sunday Scaries are fundamentally about anticipating pain, we have to wonder what is so painful about our work weeks? To address dread of the work week, we need to identify those sources of pain.
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Why do we dread work?
From a neuro-cognitive perspective, pain is a broader term than simply the ouch of stubbing a toe. When we experience overstimulation of our senses, emotions, or minds, our brains process that as a noxious stimulus. In other words, the brain finds overwhelming situations painful. And that’s the key to understanding the Sunday Scaries.
The workplace (or school) can be painful for two main reasons: either the environment, the tasks, or the people are overstimulating, or we didn’t get what we needed to recharge on the weekend. If we don’t recharge enough, we experience the workplace as overwhelming because our energy reserves are not enough for the task at hand.
Facing our dread
Anticipating pain makes it worse, and dread is the ultimate anticipation of pain. Researchers have found that dread is really all about the attention we pay to the pain we expect, so one solution is distraction. But distraction can lead us to form an “anxiety-distraction feedback loop,” as Jud Brewer calls it in the Harvard Business Review. The more we distract ourselves to avoid the pain of dread, the more we create unhealthy habits like drinking too much or overdoing screens.
Research on happiness shows that we actually feel better when we engage with negative emotions like dread. To face the Sunday Scaries, there is always Dune’s Litany Against Fear, which is surprisingly good psychology. Or try a gentler strategy I developed based on neuroscience: the Sigh, See and Start method.
Sigh, See and Start.
Sigh. It’s something we naturally do under pressure. When we sigh, the deep breath in and the slow breath out directly calm our nervous system. If we sigh deliberately, it’s a chance to connect with our bodies and our emotions, decreasing anxiety or dread.
See. Really see what that dread is trying to tell you. Imagine it’s a part of yourself and see what it is trying to say. One way to understand emotions is as a type of thought generated by your neuro-sensory system to draw your attention. Negative emotions like dread are often trying to get you to work on a problem.
The See step is mindfulness. It approaches dread with objectivity. Try saying, “Hey Dread, you’re trying to tell me something about this week. Go ahead, and I’ll see if I agree with your perspective here.” Suddenly, instead of feeling powerless in the face of the Sunday Scaries, we take charge.
Start. Start grappling with what you dread. What is the issue? Is it an unresolved communication with a co-worker? Make a plan to address it. Is it the massive tangle of the project you just got handed? If it’s useful, strategize a plan of attack for Monday and then try to forget about it. Are you starting to recognize that your workplace is simply toxic? Maybe it’s time to update your resumé.
Are you coming into the workweek already depleted? A strategic reevaluation of how you spend time on your days off is in order. Or do you love your job when it’s at a manageable pace, but dread it when it’s overwhelming?
If the issue is the unpredictability of when your work becomes too much, Start a regular mindfulness practice. I know, mindfulness is repeated so often it’s becoming boring. But being able to root into the present moment and find your own sense of calm strength is the best way I know to face overwhelming or chaotic situations. In many cases, a 5-10 minute meditation with your app a few days a week helps tremendously.
The Sunday Scaries are real, but they also happen for a good reason. It’s time to give them their say.