Being scared to death is a common phrase, heard outside cinemas and theme parks, and in the occasional episode of C.S.I. – but can a person be physically scared to death?
In 2008, a 79-year-old woman in Charlotte, North Carolina, suffered a heart attack brought on by sheer terror. While on the run from the police, 20-year-old Larry Whitfield broke into Mary Purnell’s home and forced her to sit in a chair in her bedroom. There were no signs of physical violence but the experience brought on a massive heart attack, which Mary did not survive. The federal jury found Whitfield guilty of scaring Purnell to death and handed down a life sentence. So, yes, you can be scared to death – but what happens when we’re frightened?
Fear Is a Surge of Adrenaline
When we get scared of something, it’s usually because we’ve either inherited the fear from our parents, such as a phobia, or because we’ve accumulated a perception of a particular threat to ourselves. This induces a fear response when we’re confronted with something that makes us scared.
When we feel fear, adrenaline is released throughout the body which helps prepare us for the biological ‘fight or flight’ response to the stimulus. The term was originally coined by the American physiologist, Walter Bradford Cannon, who used it to describe an animal’s response to a perceived threat. When faced with a potentially harmful situation, the creature’s nervous system triggers the creation of various hormones and neurotransmitters – including adrenaline, testosterone, dopamine and serotonin – to prepare the body to either defend itself or run for its life.
The process raises heart and respiratory rates, slows digestion, increases blood pressure and provides additional blood sugar for energy, among other side effects. It’s the reason that in terrifying situations people can get seriously hurt and not even notice; it helps people run or fight for survival depending on the brain’s reaction to the fear.
Fear is a heart breaker
So technically you can be scared to death, though it’s not the fear itself that causes it as much as the heart going into overdrive and essentially giving up. The cases where people are ‘scared to death’ are usually the result of a pre-existing heart condition, which cannot cope with the additional workload.
When adrenaline reaches the heart it makes it beat much faster than normal; the more intense the fear, the more adrenaline is released. When the heart is flooded with adrenaline, it disrupts the muscles and nerve tissues that regulate the heart’s beating. The heart suffers from abnormal rhythms that, if left uncorrected, can eventually cause death. In most cases the culprit is ventricular fibrillation, where a vibration of the lower chambers of the heart prevents the delivery of blood around the body.
It’s a stressful World… Cup
Anyone with heart disease is at risk from the effects described above, but it’s not just fear that can cause an untimely demise: the same conditions arise from any extreme emotions, such as sadness and joy, or during the euphoria of sex. German scientists discovered that the likelihood of acute cardiovascular events were much more likely when the World Cup was taking place, due to the level of stress incurred during a high-stakes football game. Fortunately, people in the UK are relatively free from this level of excitement, given that we rarely make much of dent on the competition.