You’ve probably casually used the phrase “scared to death” when you grappled with a particularly scary situation. Chances are you survived the frightening experience – despite the fear that gripped you. But have you ever wondered if you can actually die from being scared?
Can You Die From Fear?
It’s possible to die from fear, but it’s unlikely if you’re healthy. On the other hand, people who have heart disease, high blood pressure, or silent heart disease from diabetes are at higher risk than a normal person of dying from fear.
When a person is confronted with a very frightening situation, their body responds by pumping out large quantities of a hormone called adrenaline, the so-called “fight-or-flight” hormone. Adrenaline raises alertness, speeds up the heart rate, relaxes the airways in the lungs, and increases blood pressure. This helps the body respond to a potentially life-threatening situation.
The adrenaline that stimulates the heart to beat faster causes calcium channels on heart cells to open, which allows calcium to rapidly enter. This causes the heart to contract more forcefully and pump more blood to the muscles – so you can stick around to fight or make a quick get-away.
The heart rate also speeds up due to the effects of the adrenaline on the heart’s pacemaker – called the sinoatrial node. If too much adrenaline is released, it can cause a calcium imbalance in the heart cells – and lead to an irregular heart rhythm. This is more likely to occur in someone who has pre-existing heart problems.
Other Effects of Fear on the Body
Too much adrenaline, that comes from being scared, also raises blood pressure levels, which could lead to a stroke. This is more common in people who have hypertension and in elderly folks. Even though people with heart disease, high blood pressure, and older people are more likely to die from fear, there are cases of it happening to apparently healthy people.
Can You Die From Being Scared: The Bottom Line?
There’s a reason why the phrase “scared to death” is bantered about. You can literally die from fear, but it’s not common. You have a greater chance of dying while crossing the street than dying from fright.
Scientific American website. “Can a person be scared to death?”
Merck Manual. Eighteenth edition. 2006.