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Joanna Poppink, MFT
Eating Disorder Recovery Psychotherapist
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The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression arrived in my mailbox today. I unwrapped the package over my desk. The book fell out and opened to the Dread page. Mmm. We've been talking about this emotion since I published a Dread article on this blog.

So, I thought it might be helpful for you to discover and see how some of these dread descriptions might relate to you.

Since an excerpt is one and a half pages out of the 167-page book, I believe I can honor copyright laws and share the Dread pages here.

The authors, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are writers, not members of the mental health profession. So, these descriptions are from their perspective in terms of portraying a character who feels dread.

Dread - A a nearly overpowering fear to face or meet; a strong desire to avoid a future event or circumstance.

Physical Signals:

  1. holding the stomach as if pained
  2. clutching arms to one's chest
  3. shoulders curling forward, caving the chest in
  4. a bent neck
  5. leaning back or away from the source of discomfort
  6. dragging footsteps
  7. making excuses to leave
  8. a quiet voice, offering one-word responses
  9. hunched posture and drooping head
  10. clasping one's knees tightly together
  11. avoiding eye contact
  12. turning the torso, shielding it
  13. lifting the shoulders as if to hide one's neck
  14. sweating
  15. rocking slightly
  16. hands that tremble
  17. seeking the safety of darkness, an exit, etc.
  18. holding one's elbows tightly against sides
  19. a downward gaze, using the hair as a shield
  20. making oneself appear smaller
  21. huddling in the corner, behind, or against something
  22. flinching or cringing
  23. heavy footsteps
  24. uncontrollable whispering
  25. increased swallowing
  26. arms crossing the stomach in a protective huddle
  27. rubbing and twisting one's hands, spinning rings or bracelets
  28. scratching at the skin, picking or biting at nails
  29. clutching comfort items (a necklace, charm, phone, etc.)
  30. dragging the palms down one's pant legs
  31. chewing at one's lips or inner cheek and making them bleed
  32. a pale or sickly complexion

Internal Sensations:

  1. a rolling stomach
  2. heavy or sluggish heartbeat
  3. chills
  4. cold fingers
  5. tingling in the chest
  6. a weighted chest
  7. difficulty breathing
  8. a sour taste in the mouth
  9. ache in the back of the throat
  10. difficulty swallowing
  11. dizziness
  12. shakiness in the limbs

Mental Responses:

  1. thoughts of escape
  2. wanting to hide
  3. wishing time would speed up
  4. an inability to see a positive outcome
  5. the need to check for danger overriding the need to hide

Cues of Acute or Long-Term Dread:

  1. shaking, shuddering
  2. jumping at sounds
  3. teeth chattering
  4. weeping
  5. seeking any excuse to avoid what is to come
  6. hyperventilating
  7. bargaining, pleading
  8. anxiety attack
  9. may escalate to Anguish (24), Terror (154)

Clues of Suppressed Dread:

  1. acting like one is simply feeling under the weather
  2. attempting to escape via distraction (TV, book, music)
  3. focusing thoughts to keep fear from taking over
  4. keeping still

Does this list help you bring your attention to your own physical and mental states when you are feeling dread? Does this list help stimulate your thinking and make you more aware of your feelings?

Remember, please, that this list was created by writers for writers. Still, in trying to make a fictional character seem realistic when feeling dread, the authors may have created a list that helps you be more realistic about your own real and lived experience.

Let me know what this list raises inside of you, including nothing, if that's how it is. :)


Additional Information:

"5 strategies to help you cope with a nagging feeling of dread"

Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are members of the SCBWI, The Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Visit their award-winning online resource if you want to get support for your own writing projects. And thank you, Angela and Becca for your permission to post the Dread excerpt from your book.

Exploring the Neurobiology of Dread


Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.


Written by Joanna Poppink, MFT. Joanna is a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in eating disorder recovery, stress, PTSD, and adult development.

She is licensed in CA, AZ, OR, FL, and UT. Author of the Book: Healing Your Hungry Heart: Recovering from Your Eating Disorder

Appointments are virtual.

For a free telephone consultation, e-mail her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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