The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Frenzied stampedes at the emergency exits, deadly crushes at the lifeboats and on the football terraces. Yell “shark,” warns the mayor in Jaws, and “we’ve got a panic on our hands.” Restraint and rationality disappear, replaced by a wild instinct for self-preservation making us clutch and kick and scream.

The word “panic” has its origins in Greek mythology, describing a sudden, inexplicable terror felt by travelers in wild, uninhabited places. Only later did they realize they had stumbled across the feral half-man half-goat deity, Pan, disguised as a tree or a rock. Pan was the overlord of clamorous rites, and those who followed his cult celebrated him with ecstatic parties. Panic therefore became linked with a hard-to-explain feeling of dread, and the sensation of being taken over by the force of a dangerous, collective irrationality (see also: ECSTASY).

At the end of the nineteenth century, panic was a much-studied phenomenon among a new school of thinkers who called themselves “crowd psychologists.” Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon held up panic as an example of contagious emotions at work. They believed that when individuals became part of a crowd, they regressed to an earlier primitive state where the boundaries between individuals were less stable and emotions could fly back and forth like germs. These ideas still form part of the way we speak about panics today as a kind of “primitive” experience, though it’s worth noting that these late-nineteenth-century ideas came out of a way of thinking about human emotional life that we’d find untenable today: thought to be lower down the evolutionary ladder, it was members of the so-called lower races, the hysterics and those labeled “degenerate,” who were believed least in command of their own emotions and most likely to succumb to those of others.

Today we do not just catch panic from other people. We also stir it up in ourselves. First named in the 1960s, the solitary “panic attack” may be one of the most terrifying things possible to suffer. You inhale, but there’s no air. The heart hammers as the room closes in. You feel your chest constrict, and realize you’re sweating profusely, and fear a heart attack is imminent, making the panicked feeling worse. Panic attacks are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and are often experienced by people with extreme phobias, though anyone might experience one quite unexpectedly.

And in the meantime, we remain more vulnerable than ever to the panic of the mob. Physical proximity—the smell of fear, the cry of “Fire!” in a crowded theater—is no longer necessary. Conspiracy theories and rumors can break loose over Twitter, causing a rush on bottled water, or spooking the stock markets. Security guards still diligently use code words for “fire” and “unattended bag” when they speak over PA systems. But perhaps more dangerous still may be the panic that could spread between smartphones and laptops, bouncing from satellite to satellite and leaving a tangle of chaos and confusion behind it.

Panicking yet? If not, then see: TORSCHLUSSPANIK.

For more on contagious feelings see: EMPATHY.