Can You Actually be Scared to Death?

People say that they are “scared to death” but is it possible to actually die from being scared? Trace Dominguez and Wilson Cleveland found out for Seeker. 


We've all said it millions of times but can you actually be scared to death? It turns out you can and if you've ever seen me before my morning coffee, you know what I'm talking about. When a person experiences sudden fright, the brain perceives a threat and flips the switch on the body's natural fight or flight response. We evolved to react quickly when threatened. It comes from a time when we were living in the wild and a predator could be the difference between us living to old age or dying right then and there. Fear, adrenaline, body temperature, brain activity, muscle reaction… so many parts of your body immediately react when you're scared, especially suddenly. The fight or flight response is why you jump when startled. That's your body trying to kickstart you into action!

What's happening INSIDE starts with your hypothalamus. When your brain perceives a threat, it activates the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system. When these systems activate they prime your smooth muscle tissue, and release norepinephrine, epinephrine and 30 other hormones into your bloodstream. All hormones immediately raise your blood pressure, kicks your focus out of the way, tells your body to convert glucose to energy NOW, and tells your heart to prepare for action. Your heart races, blood vessels constrict, and muscles tense… YOU'RE READY TO DO THIS THING!

On top of that, your pupils dilate, your digestive and immune systems shut down to conserve energy. You might think it seems silly to remove your ability to focus, but the brain wants you to be able to take in as much information as possible. This is why it's hard not to hear EVERY SOUND IN THE SCARY WOODS AT NIGHT.

We usually call this feeling a big adrenaline rush. But those same adrenaline surges can also lead to ventricular fibrillation or a stress cardiomyopathy. Ventricular fibrillation is an extremely serious condition of the heart, where the electrical activity controlling the heartbeat gets confused.  When this happens the heart can stop pumping blood, causing oxygen deprivation to the brain.

In other words, you drop dead of a heart attack.

Neurologists at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston have collected hundreds of reports of otherwise healthy people who have died suddenly in frightening situations like victims of muggings whose assailants never touched them, people who've died on amusement park rides and car accident victims who sustained only minor physical injuries.

I even read about a woman who experienced stress cardiomyopathy when she was startled by people at a surprise party for her 60th birthday!