By Stormie Kent
As writers, we are constantly trying to portray character emotions correctly. I’ve discussed romantic love and anger in previous posts. I want to explore fear today.
What are the emotions that a human being may experience?
According to W. Gerrod Parrot (2001), there are six primary emotions (love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness and fear) which are then comprised of secondary and tertiary emotions. These secondary and tertiary emotions are more specific in scope. For example, the secondary emotions for fear are horror and nervousness. The tertiary emotions for fear/horror are shock, terror, panic, hysteria, alarm and mortification. All of these secondary and tertiary emotions stem from fear. (Click on the highlighted link for a chart.)
What are specific physiological responses associated with each major emotion?
Fear: It is one of the emotions people dislike, yet fear has kept our species alive. Fear, like other emotions, involves a biochemical response to an event, and our interpretation of it. Many of us have heard of the fight or flight response. When we perceive danger our bodies prepare to defend or run away. This reaction was crucial to our ancestor’s survival.
Fear shows up in the body through sweating, spiked adrenaline and amplified heart rate. Initially, we experience an event that is potentially physical dangerous or dangerous to our well-being. The amygdala is responsible for sending the message that we are frightened to our autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system controls the body’s involuntary actions. It regulates heart rate, and allows the blood vessels to widen or narrow.
This is why our heart rate and blood pressure increase when we are scared. Our breathing quickens. Adrenaline and cortisol are released into our systems. Blood even flows away from the heart, and to our limbs, so that we can react more quickly to danger. Our ability to reason is impaired because the amygdala is sending the fear response to the autonomic nervous system. Many people have the feeling that time slows or feel as if everything is happening in slow motion. Our brains are trying to assess, and catalogue the possible danger we are facing.
Some people become addicted to the adrenaline high they get from their body’s biochemical reaction to fear. Who loves the giant drop on a roller coaster or a really good horror movie? Other people see the biochemical response to fear as something to be completely avoided. Phobias are an extension of this abhorrence of fear’s biochemical reactions, and how they feel in the body.
Now, what about your characters? If you read last month’s post on anger, you will notice the two emotions share some characteristics. Is this why when we are scared we can become violent? If your character is attacked by a vampire (not the nice, romantic kind) will they run or fight?
What scares you? What does fear feel like as it courses through your body? I would love to hear from you on the subject.