Thermally activated escape in the presence of a periodic external field is investigated theoretically and through analogue experiments and digital simulations. The observed variation of the activation energy for escape with driving force parameters is accurately described by the logarithmic susceptibility (LS). The frequency dispersion of the LS is shown to differ markedly from the standard linear susceptibility. Experimental data on the dispersion are in quantitative agreement with the theory. Switching between different branches of the activation energy is demonstrated for a nonsinusoidal (biharmonic) force.