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Can a Healthy Person Actually Be Scared to Death?

You may have heard of the “fight or flight” response. That’s our bodies’ built-in system for preparing us to deal with a life-threatening situation. In times of perceived danger, our bodies release adrenaline (also called epinephrine). This hormone prompts the nervous system to involuntarily:

  • Raise our heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Boost blood flow to our muscles.
  • Expand air passages in our lungs.
  • Enlarge (dilate) our pupils.
  • Shift our metabolism to maximize blood glucose (blood sugar that gives you energy).

These responses temporarily increase our strength and heighten our awareness. The changes in our bodies prepare us to run from or fight the threat.

The fight-or-flight-response was first built into our physiology long ago. Now we don’t have the same need to be ready to physically fight or flee.

Fighting or running isn’t always the appropriate response to today’s threats. However, stress and adrenaline can still trigger our fight-or-flight response.


Adrenaline at Work

When you’re stressed, your body releases adrenaline. If you have excess adrenaline, you can become lightheaded, dizzy and irritable. Your vision can also change when stressed.

What happens when stress is long term? Ongoing high levels of adrenaline can lead to nervousness and insomnia.

Stress can even leave you with heart damage. When your body releases adrenaline, it prompts calcium channels in your heart to open.

Calcium rushing into your heart causes it to contract strongly. (Contractions are what pumps blood to your muscles.) But when calcium keeps flowing into the heart, it can’t relax.

What happens if you’re scared or stressed and have a lot of adrenaline hitting your heart? You can develop an arrhythmia. The type of improper heart beat that stress can cause is called ventricular fibrillation.

Your heart chambers start to quiver rather than pumping properly to move your blood.

Your blood pressure drops. The blood flow to your brain slows or stops. You lose consciousness. If blood flow doesn’t promptly resume, your brain…. and you die.

You might surmise that a person with heart disease might be more susceptible. You are correct.

However, this adverse reaction to excessive adrenaline can also occur to someone with normal health.


Fear Isn’t the Only Adrenaline Trigger

Your body can prompt excessive adrenaline during sex, an exciting sports event or even a fervent religious experience.

Psychology Today reported that researchers studied the number of heart attacks treated at a Brooklyn hospital in the two months after the 9/11 attacks.

The number of heart attacks increased by 35 percent in that time. The study authors believe stress caused by the attacks and their aftermath resulted in the spike in cardiac events.


You Can Be Scared to Death

Too much adrenaline in the wrong situation can be a recipe for health problems. Yes, you can be frightened to death — but it’s pretty uncommon!

Here are some suggestions for ways you can reduce stress and your adrenaline levels. Here’s an added benefit: Reducing stress is good for your overall health.

Is stress affecting your quality of life (and leaving you wondering about being scared to death)? See your health care provider or a professional who specializes in mental health.


Get more tips for your health and well-being. Visit Aurora Health Care’s Facebook page! Aurora is a not-for-profit health organization serving families in Wisconsin, Illinois and Upper Michigan. 

Meet the Author

Thomas K. Reiners, MD specializes in family medicine at Aurora Health Center in Wauwatosa.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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