4 Ways Your Character Will Handle a Stressful Situation

I wrote recently on my Writers Helping Writers guest post fear is hardwired into our brain. Deep, deep in the primal part that we don’t have a lot of conscious control over.  I won’t go into the not-so-interesting science of it all but what it means for you is that every character in your book is going to be afraid of something. And I’m not just talking about heights or spiders, although we do have an evolutionary propensity to be afraid of those. As social creatures (also powerfully programmed into our grey matter) the fear of rejection, being alone or the threats other humans can pose to us (as competitors or predators) are powerful influences on our behaviour.

When the body perceives a threat, whether it be a sabre tooth tiger, the prospect of being dumped or public speaking, the psychological, biological and visceral reactions we experience are just as real.  Adrenaline rushes through the body getting the muscles ready for emergency action. Vision heightens as pupils constrict. Breathing and heart rate speed up as more oxygen is channelled to the muscles.  All nonessential processes – like the digestive system – cease (which unfortunately includes higher order processes like problem solving…).

Ultimately, your brain’s goal is simple – do what it takes to make the anxiety/fear go away. I would guess most of you have heard of the fight or flight response, and some of those people even know it’s been extended to include ‘freeze’. But I was at a psychology presentation recently that expanded it even further to include a fourth response, and the moment I heard it flashes of my life, and my clients’ lives, showed me countless scenario’s where we do exactly that.

What is it? Well, let’s go through them:

  1. Fight

Option A is to attack. Your character may clench their fists, grit their teeth, scream, snarl or shriek as their instinct propels them to kick, punch, smash. Anger, aggression and hostility are the hallmark emotions of this response. This is going to be more likely in a character that is male (although not always, ask the female character in my head that’s not-so-patiently waiting for me to write her story) and has a belief that aggressive responses are helpful. They may have fought before or witnessed aggressive responses and have come to the conclusion that the outcome was positive. If being snarly, angry or threatening makes the trigger for the anxiety stop or go away, then their brain thinks it’s been successful.

  1. Flight

Alternatively, your character may go with Option B – run as fast as they can in whatever direction is away from the threat. Ever been there? You’re late for a meeting, usually a darned important one, and the moment you enter the room, every face, including that of your boss/ crush/arch enemy turns and looks at you. The urge to hightail it zings through your legs as fast as your teeny-tiny neurons can fire. This response is the one most classically tied to avoidance. The easiest way to make the not-very pleasant cascade of stress hormones and fearful feelings stop is to get away. Our brain is smart, it knows that once the threat is gone we can return to our baseline state.

  1. Freeze

The fight or flight concept has been extended to include freeze, the proverbial deer in the headlights. In this situation the adrenalin kicks in, senses sharpen, breathing becomes shallow. But your character. Won’t. Move. They become a statue on high alert. This scenario has two aims – assess a situation so you can decide what to do next, or to ‘play dead’. In the case of the latter, if your brain has decided that the prognosis is looking hopeless then it will freeze either to try and fool the threat, or simply ‘check out’. This involves numbing or dissociating. It wasn’t until I was writing this that I realised this is exactly what my protagonist does in book two of the series I’m writing. Her situation isn’t life threatening, but it presents as hopeless and the pain of her choice as inevitable, so she disconnects.

  1. Control

Humans have mastered this strategy, and it’s what has placed us at the top of the food chain. If there’s a situation that we don’t like, that involves discomfort, we control our environment to suit. Cold? We invent heating. Hungry over winter? We create cooking, pickling, jamming, refrigeration and freeze drying. Got a situation that stresses you out? Change the environment so it goes away.

Control is what I see in teenagers that have experienced trauma. If they’re in a class that they find overwhelming, they will manipulate the teacher, cajole the soft-hearted ones or annoy the cranky ones, until they’re sent out. Mission accomplished. They can even extend this control strategy to home. They will fake an illness, push the parent-guilt button, tug on their heart-strings and get to stay home. I doubt they even notice that their brain gives them a little pat on the back.

This response is far more subtle than the first three, but it fascinates me, because we all do it. Which means one or more of your characters will do it. Christian Grey does it in Fifty Shades of Grey. Feeling out of control causes him anxiety, so he controls everything – his work, his schedule, Anastasia… I have no doubt that countless other characters have done it too.

So next time you’re writing and you’ve yanked your character out of their comfort zone – I do love those bits – consider which is going to be their most likely response. It will be dictated by their backstory, their misbeliefs about how the world functions, and how they’ve viewed the situation through their unique lens. I’d love to hear about it.

Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.

Have a wonderful week,


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