Can people literally be scared to death? It sounds like the stuff of ghost stories and B movies, but physicians say the phenomenon is rare but real—and shows how fear from the brain can affect the heart, specifically with a rush of adrenaline.
What It Is: Commonly known as the fight or flight hormone, it is produced by the adrenal glands after receiving a message from the brain that a stressful situation has presented itself.
What It Does: Adrenaline, along with norepinephrine (more on that below), is largely responsible for the immediate reactions we feel when stressed. Imagine you’re trying to change lanes in your car, says Amit Sood, M.D., director of research at the Complementary and Integrative Medicine and chair of Mayo Mind Body Initiative at Mayo Clinic.
Suddenly, from your blind spot, comes a car racing at 100 miles per hour. You return to your original lane and your heart is pounding. Your muscles are tense, you’re breathing faster, you may start sweating. That’s adrenaline.
Along with the increase in heart rate, adrenaline also gives you a surge of energy which you might need to run away from a dangerous situation and also focuses your attention.
According to New Scientist magazine, researchers are now convinced that there is some truth in the old saying “I was scared to death”.
In some cases, the body’s own fight-or-flight response to danger appears to backfire and stop the heart completely. It may also trigger fatal heart attacks.
Doctors might be able to prevent this type of heart attack if they can identify the people at risk.
Fight or flight
Terror, or any extreme emotional response, stimulates the fight-or-flight response.
The brain’s hypothalamus tells the adrenal glands to start pumping hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline – also known as catecholamines – into the bloodstream. They are a major fear and stress hormones can cause death.