Aug 29, 2019
By Zachary Isoma, PsyD
As I sway in the relaxing embrace of my hammock, I take a sip from my cold glass of lemonade, bathing in the Sunday morning sun. Suddenly, a glimpse of a dark, eerie figure in the distance cuts through the serenity. It feels both far away yet too close for comfort. If I listen closely enough, I can hear the thud of monstrous footsteps approaching. I think I can even see my lemonade start to tremble.
I know this monster well. It comes every week at exactly the same time. I check the clock, dreading the foreboding figure that looms larger with each passing second. If only I had just a little more time! But I don’t, so I mentally run through all the things I need to do to prepare. I try to relax – after all, the monster is still far away – but I can’t. Before I know it, I’m already gathering supplies, donning my armor, and preparing to fight. I check the clock again. The Monday Monster’s arrival is imminent. Am I ready?
This harrowing scene is all-too-familiar for most of us in the workforce. The so-called “Sunday Scaries,” or “Sunday Night Blues,” are exactly what they sound like: The experience of anticipatory anxiety about the upcoming workweek. As Sunday afternoon and evening roll in, many of us dread the upcoming week, ruminate on tasks left over from the week before, and worry about upcoming deadlines. These thoughts can become so overwhelming and intrusive, we lose track of what’s left of the weekend and spend valuable time sad and anxious about the weekend ending.
The Sunday Scaries earned Internet infamy after a published survey showed that 76% of US respondents said they’d experienced “really bad” Sunday night blues. Another poll found that over 90% of Millennial and Generation Z respondents reported grappling with this weekly dread.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much additional research about the topic, and the existing data reports mixed findings on the phenomenon. But social media platforms abound with anecdotes about it. One person – whom I’ll call Andrea – shared with me her own Sunday Scaries experience. Andrea noticed the feeling of pressure to work on Sundays to keep up with the demands of her job. In particular, she believed that the mobility of technology, flexible work hours, and work-from-home options were increasing, not decreasing, her work-related anxiety.
“I can never really unplug,” Andrea says. “In a high-stress work environment, I can’t just turn it off on Friday afternoons. It permeates other areas of my life. Work is right around the corner. Having the ability to log in during the weekend only makes this worse.” She lamented how her mind often wanders to work-related tasks, conjuring different future-oriented scenarios and leaving her with fear of the unknown.
“When work is stressful, I think about it a lot during the weekends. I try not to think about it and not go on the computer at all,” she says. Still, her mind torments her with worries when she isn’t working, and the urge to suppress those worries is overpowering. This quickly turns into a lose-lose scenario: Andrea either spends much of her Sunday worrying about the upcoming workweek or works during the weekend in order to decrease the anxiety and stress. What should be a day of rest becomes a day of stress.
What can be done about this phenomenon? In the U.S., it can be tough to find companies offering shorter workweeks, but even if they did, the Sunday Scaries would likely just transfer to whatever day preceded the start of the new workweek. Another idea, albeit impractical for most, is to quit work altogether and find passive means of income. For the rest of us, it’s important to find practical ways to help stave off the Sunday Scaries. Here are a few different strategies.
Mindfulness–an approach that has gained significant popularity in recent years– means intentionally paying attention to the present moment in an open, non-judgmental way. While mindfulness can be helpful for a number of different problems, outcomes for those who practice it are often misunderstood and misconstrued. Still, this approach can be a great way to train your mind to notice when you get caught up in thoughts about work, and re-attend to the present moment.
If you’ve never practiced mindfulness, a quick and easy exercise to get started involves turning your attention toward sensations you typically ignore. Right now, for example, you’re breathing. For the next 10 seconds, stop reading, close your eyes, and pay attention to your breathing.
For many of us, keeping busy is the norm. It can feel as though there’s a never-ending laundry list of to-dos, including the laundry itself. These chores can be important and meaningful in their own right, but we often see them as monotonous, ever-revolving goals. To help counteract this, spend some time identifying and prioritizing what makes life meaningful, enriching, and rewarding. Afterward, willfully take steps toward doing what matters most to you.
Since we can’t just ignore chores and pursue fun and leisure all the time, you might pick one or two chores and a couple of fun activities and schedule them into your weekend. During a weekend filled with more chores than fun, notice if there’s anything personally meaningful about those tasks. For example, I really dislike doing the dishes – it’s my least favorite chore. But living a clean and healthy lifestyle is important to me, which helps make the chore meaningful, even if it isn’t pleasant.
We often put weekends on a pedestal – but that can result in happiness slipping through our hands like a wet bar of soap when we spend more time dreading the end than enjoying the present. This is especially true when something goes awry and we end up feeling down during the weekend, the time when we’re “supposed” to feel happiest. Like the wet bar of soap, if we clutch too tightly to the elusive happiness feeling, our lives start to be dictated by the quality of our emotions rather than the activities that make life worth living. Learning to adopt a stance of acceptance toward pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and feelings can go a long way toward living more fully, regardless of the day of week.
Andrea talked a lot about getting work done in order to avoid unwanted worrisome thoughts and anticipatory anxiety around the upcoming workweek. This is our inner Monday Monster that anticipates and frets about work and implores us to “Do work now!” I would encourage Andrea to invite the monster – that part of her mind incessantly chattering about work – to go for a walk. I asked Andrea how she would like to spend her Sundays if it weren’t for feeling so stuck. She said she would go out more and enjoy the day. I would challenge her to try the former without expecting the latter.
Taking your mind for a walk means being willing to have unwanted worrisome thoughts and urges while continuing to engage in pleasurable life activities. At first, this will be difficult and you’ll likely hear the monster implore you to do work, or else. But with help from mindfulness, you can learn to pay little heed to the Monday Monster while living your Sunday life.
Sometimes the monster can become especially overwhelming. It may feel like the weight of work is bearing down on your mind and the only way to escape is to withdraw from life. In some cases this can lead to avoiding family, friends, and social activities. When it gets really bad, it can lead to calling in sick for work and staying in bed. If you notice the Sunday Scaries overtaking your life, it’s important to seek out a mental health care provider.
This Sunday, I encourage you to practice sitting with your Monday Monster. You’ll likely feel a strong urge to give in and do work or focus your energy on fighting the monster. But if you’re willing to sit with the urge without giving in, you might find you can spend less time fighting and more time living.
If you need support with stress, anxiety, or other issues, Lyra can connect you to a behavioral health solution that is right for your needs. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zachary Isoma, PsyD is a clinical psychologist and co-owner of Harbor Psychology, serving the Greater Tampa Bay area. He specializes in practicing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) with men who struggle with anxiety and have difficulties expressing their thoughts and feelings. He is the founder of the Tampa Bay ACT peer consultation group and provides trainings, workshops, and seminars on ACT to students and professionals.