When you were a child, did your parents ever tell you not to sneak up on your grandma because you might give her a heart attack? You may not have believed them, and you scared your poor old granny anyway because it was funny and you were just a kid. Who would have believed that it’s possible to literally be scared to death?
The Body’s Response to Fear
What exactly happens to your body when you are scared? You may have heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response, which is our body preparing for maximum physical exertion to either fight off the threat or run like heck. This response helps to explain why we can be scared to death.
As soon as your brain recognizes a threat or is startled, the sympathetic nervous system (which controls body systems during activity) is summoned into action. The following responses are triggered in the body in preparation for fight or flight:
- Blood glucose level increases
- Blood pressure increases
- Heart rate increases
- Pupils dilate
- Bronchioles (in lungs) dilate, preparing for increased oxygen needs
- Blood vessels constrict
- Blood flow diverted to skeletal muscles and heart
- Epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine released from the adrenal medulla
The sudden flood of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine greatly stress the heart and can lead to unnatural heart rhythms and possibly death. Considering the physiological responses listed above, you can see how someone with a chronic heart condition may suffer a heart attack when fear hits. It’s far more likely for someone with a pre-existing heart condition to die of fright; however, it may come as a surprise to find out that even healthy people can sometimes fall prey during stressful situations.
Fear’s Relation to Death
One interesting study done by David Phillips at the University of California San Diego illustrates how stressful situations, such as fear or paranoia, can impact mortality. Chinese and Japanese people consider the number four to be unlucky because it’s very similar to the word death’ in their languages. The study was done to examine cardiac deaths in Chinese and Japanese subjects on the fourth day of the month as compared to other days. The results showed that cardiac deaths on the fourth day of the month were 7% higher compared to other days of the month. It’s possible this peak in deaths on the fourth day of the month was due to increased stress regarding the superstition and paranoia surrounding the number four.
So, the next time your spouse or child purposely scares you, make them read this blog. They might feel bad for nearly ‘scaring you to death!’
Have you ever been so scared you thought it was the end for you? Tell us about it!