Can You Really Be Scared to Death?

The ghosts, gob­lins, witch­es, and black cats are all about to knock on your door. The haunt­ed hous­es are open and the thriller movie marathons have start­ed. It’s that time of year when every­thing is about get­ting scared. 

If you’re some­one who is eas­i­ly spooked, you might find your­self say­ing, that scared me to death” through­out October. 

But … is that actu­al­ly possible? 

Tech­ni­cal­ly, yes (more on that lat­er). But watch­ing a hor­ror movie in your liv­ing room or see­ing a trick-or-treater dressed as a witch prob­a­bly won’t do it for you. 

While fear may not be like­ly to result in death, it can still affect your body in oth­er, and gen­er­al­ly less threat­en­ing, ways. Here’s how the Hal­loween and non-Hal­loween scaries can take a toll on your body. 

What’s hap­pen­ing in your body when you get scared? 

That fear­ful feel­ing you get when some­one jumps out at you doesn’t typ­i­cal­ly last for very long, but it’s not insignif­i­cant — it can send a jolt through­out your entire body. 

Also read, Stress In Your Body: How Stress Can Man­i­fest as Phys­i­cal Symp­toms”

It all starts in your brain. 

There are sev­er­al struc­tures in your brain that are key to how your body responds to fear, including: 

  1. The amyg­dala: This is a small, almond-shaped area near your ears. It’s the first place that receives sig­nals that some­thing may be dan­ger­ous. Your amyg­dala essen­tial­ly decides how emo­tion­al­ly impor­tant the sit­u­a­tion is, and how the rest of your body should react. 
  1. The hip­pocam­pus: This struc­ture puts your fear into con­text so you can fig­ure out if some­thing that is poten­tial­ly dan­ger­ous is actu­al­ly a threat or not. For instance, the image of a bur­glar may be scary. Your hip­pocam­pus helps you real­ize that if you see that image on a TV, you don’t need to tru­ly be scared of that bur­glar rob­bing you — but if the bur­glar is in your house, there is a real threat. 
  1. The pre­frontal cor­tex. Sit­ting right above your eyes, the pre­frontal cor­tex is involved in how you process or think about fear on more of a log­i­cal lev­el. For exam­ple, you might not be scared of a spi­der that you assume is just a Hal­loween dec­o­ra­tion, until your room­mate informs you that they did not dec­o­rate your home with spiders.

Once your brain per­ceives that there is rea­son to fear, it trig­gers a surge of the hor­mone adrenaline. 

Your heart and lungs also get involved. 

Adren­a­line opens up your air pas­sages so that your mus­cles get the oxy­gen they need to jump­start the fight-or-flight” response. Addi­tion­al­ly, adren­a­line caus­es your body to redi­rect blood toward your lungs and heart. 

The amount of adren­a­line that your body releas­es helps the rest of your body decide how dan­ger­ous the sit­u­a­tion is. The lit­tle bit you would like­ly get from some­one yelling, Boo!” is prob­a­bly not enough to cause any real damage. 

On the oth­er hand, life-threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions, like nar­row­ly avoid­ing a poten­tial­ly fatal car crash, can result in huge rush­es of adren­a­line. This can cause dra­mat­ic spikes in blood pres­sure and heart rate, and could pos­si­bly lead to a seri­ous car­diac event, like your heart being unable to function. 

Adren­a­line also widens the air­ways in your lungs, mak­ing breath­ing faster and deep­er, and giv­ing you the feel­ing of short­ness of breath. 

Bro­ken heart syn­drome may actu­al­ly scare you to death (but don’t wor­ry — it’s rare). 

One of the most dan­ger­ous results of fear-pro­vok­ing exces­sive adren­a­line is stress car­diomy­opa­thy (also known as Takot­subo car­diomy­opa­thy or bro­ken heart syndrome). 

Stress car­diomy­opa­thy caus­es the main pump­ing cham­ber of the heart to weak­en. The extra adren­a­line makes the arter­ies that bring blood to the heart nar­row, tem­porar­i­ly decreas­ing blood flow. It can cause symp­toms that mim­ic those of a heart attack, like chest pain, short­ness of breath, and dizziness. 

Adren­a­line can also attach itself to heart cells. This allows excess cal­ci­um to come into the cells, which then stops them from beat­ing as they should. 

While the effects of stress car­diomy­opa­thy are short-term and 100% reversible, it is pos­si­ble for the con­di­tion to lead to fatal com­pli­ca­tions, such as con­ges­tive heart fail­ure or shock — espe­cial­ly if you have a pre-exist­ing heart condition. 

Keep­ing your heart in shape could low­er your risk of severe com­pli­ca­tions from fear. Make an appoint­ment with a Duly Health and Care pri­ma­ry care provider or car­di­ol­o­gist to learn more. 

Don’t for­get about your diges­tive system. 

Your brain and your gut are deeply con­nect­ed. The brain and spinal cord make up the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem, which is what many peo­ple asso­ciate the term ner­vous sys­tem” with. But there is a less­er-known one that is often referred to as the sec­ond brain.” Its actu­al name is the enteric ner­vous sys­tem”, and, just like the cen­tral sys­tem, the enteric one con­tains a net­work of nerve cells. How­ev­er, it is locat­ed in your gut, lin­ing the walls of your diges­tive tract. The enteric sys­tem com­mu­ni­cates back and forth with your brain via chem­i­cals like hormones. 

Once your real” brain deter­mines that there is a threat and this is a fight-or-flight sit­u­a­tion, your sec­ond brain responds by stop­ping or slow­ing down your diges­tion. The rest of your body then has more ener­gy that it can use to fight the threat. This results in you feel­ing dis­com­fort, like that stom­ach-churn­ing feel­ing like you have but­ter­flies in your stomach. 

What about fear that persists? 

Not all fear stems from being sud­den­ly spooked. Some fear is ongo­ing, like the type you would get if you have a chron­ic dis­ease and are in a con­stant state of wor­ry or the type you get before pub­lic speak­ing and fly­ing. This type of fear isn’t tech­ni­cal­ly fear at all — it’s actu­al­ly anx­i­ety. The dif­fer­ence is that fear is a reac­tion to cur­rent dan­ger, where­as anx­i­ety is more gen­er­al. Anx­i­ety is how you feel in the present about what could hap­pen in the future, and it can be influ­enced by things that hap­pened in the past or that are cur­rent­ly happening. 

Some of the ways in which fear and anx­i­ety affect your body over­lap, like short­ness of breath, rapid heart­beat, sweat­ing, and upset stomach. 

How­ev­er, there are some dif­fer­ences. Anx­i­ety can also cause: 

  • Feel­ings of ner­vous­ness, inse­cu­ri­ty, ten­sion, rest­less­ness, or an impend­ing sense of doom 
  • Dif­fi­cul­ty sleep­ing or concentrating 
  • Ring­ing in the ears 
  • Trou­ble con­trol­ling your worry

Long-last­ing anx­i­ety can even lead to meta­bol­ic or heart disease. 

What can I do? 

It’s not always pos­si­ble to pre­pare your body to be sud­den­ly scared. How­ev­er, keep­ing up with your heart health is a good way to low­er your chance of devel­op­ing a heart con­di­tion that could turn a sud­den scare into a seri­ous health risk. 

Also read: How do I Know if I Have an Anx­i­ety Dis­or­der?”

On the oth­er hand, there are many ways to cope with anx­i­ety and ease long-term fears. Your pri­ma­ry care physi­cian can help you man­age anx­i­ety so it doesn’t inter­fere with your every­day life. 

Look­ing for help man­ag­ing your anx­i­ety? Con­tact a Duly Health and Care pri­ma­ry care physician. 

From the team at Duly Health and Care, we wish you a hap­py Hal­loween that has only a healthy dose of scary! 

Health Topics:

  • I chose to pursue primary care medicine because it allows me to develop long-term, meaningful relationships with patients. I strive to connect with my patients in order to best provide evidence-based but also individualized care.