Day Four of #SpookyScience: Can You Be Scared To Death?
Welcome to Day 4 of #SpookyScience! We’ve covered a lot of creepy ground this week, discussing things like why we get goosebumps, why we find screams scary, and why we enjoy things like horror films and haunted houses. Today, we’re exploring the truth behind the concept of being “scared half to death”.
We’ve all heard the phrase “I was scared to death!” In fact, you’ve probably said it yourself a few times. It’s easy to feel that way when we’re startled or afraid of something; your chest tightens, your mind races, your palms sweat, your heart pounds… It certainly sounds a lot like dying. Most people consider this to be a hyperbolic expression, somewhere along the lines of “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” and “I have a billion things to do”. But what actually happens when we’re scared out of our minds – and can you actually be so terrified you can die?
Scares Increase Our Heart Rate – Sometimes Too Much
To better understand this phenomenon, we need to look at the physiological effects of being scared. We’ve learned in previous articles that fright results in our body’s fight-or-flight response and in a rush of adrenaline and hormones. All of these things result in symptoms like accelerated heart rate, dilated pupils, and increased blood flow to the muscles, responses that are controlled by the autonomic nervous system (or ANS).
But while we normally think of adrenaline rushes as being fun or exciting (at least for thrill-seekers), adrenaline levels that increase too rapidly or severely can have dangerous consequences. When adrenaline is released, calcium rushes into our heart cells, causing the heart muscle to contract. In a normal fight-or-flight response, this gets more blood to our muscles faster, which enables us to challenge our opponent or flee.
However, in a massive adrenaline release, our heart muscle can’t relax from its contractions. This can potentially result in an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation, where instead of contracting and relaxing in a cyclic manner, the heart quivers from uncoordinated contractions instead of beating normally. When this happens, your blood pressure drops and you can lose consciousness.
The Verdict: It’s Possible, But Not Probable
So what’s the verdict? It turns out that you actually can be scared to death, if the incident results in an irregular heartbeat. This can cause a lack of oxygen to the brain or a heart attack – and while those with pre-existing or undiagnosed heart conditions are obviously at a greater risk, it can also happen in young, healthy people.
It’s not just fear that can make you drop dead. In fact, any form of extreme emotion can trigger high adrenaline levels – meaning that you can actually die of a broken heart, too. For example, there was an increase in sudden cardiac death among New Yorkers a few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This also explains why certain people are particularly disturbed by loud noises or being startled. Mental disorders such as anxiety and PTSD can also play a role in these reactions.
Here’s the good news: the odds of being scared to death are very low, and when you’re already anticipating a scare – like on Halloween – you’re mentally prepared for the event, making it far less likely that your adrenaline rush will be severe. To ease your mind, think about the range of emotions that you experience every single day – sitting irritated in rush hour traffic, getting a compliment at work, spilling coffee on yourself and feeling embarrassed – and then think about all of the times throughout your life that you’ve experienced intense emotions, like at the birth of your child or getting into college.