Thank you so much for joining me on today’s episode of Simple Health Radio. Today’s question comes to us from Terel Jackson the host of the podcast called Health Science for the Rest of Us. You can visit her website at

She sent in a question about fear and death.

There is a lot of Hollywood drama regarding being scared to death. That’s the whole basis for Halloween movies and horror films.

Medically speaking, this is called the “fight or flight” response. Basically, our bodies have a defense mechanism. When our brain recognizes a danger or an enemy, it sends signals to the rest the body to prepare either to fight the enemy or take flight which means run away. The body has to divert resources from certain organs to others in order for that to happen. The primary hormone is adrenaline, also called epinephrine.

Some people like the feeling of being scared. They love going to haunted houses and trying activities like bungee jumping. They get adrenaline releases and it gives them a rush or high. The same thing happens when you play football or compete in a track meet.

What are the effects of adrenaline?

There are several actions that occur from adrenaline, including raising the pulse rate, increasing blood pressure, increasing blood circulation to our muscles, increasing our breathing rate, increasing the air in our lungs, and large in or dilating the pupils, and changing our metabolism to increase blood sugar.

Why does adrenaline do those things?

If you’re preparing to fight, you want your body prepared in the best way possible. Increasing your heart rate and dilating your eyes actually gives you a heightened sense of awareness.

If you’re planning to take a flight or run away, the same things would still benefit you. If you can see in the dark or run faster, it’s more likely you’ll be able to get away from the danger.

The problem with adrenaline is that it can also affect the body in negative ways, especially if it happens multiple times. For example, if someone is in an abusive relationship, every day could be a fight or flight response. If someone has a car accident, they’re going to have a large adrenaline release. If they get into an argument at work, they could have another adrenaline release. They get fired and go home to have a confrontation with their spouse or landlord, it’s going to cause even more adrenaline to be released.

Excessive adrenaline will cause hypertension, diabetes, and kidney problems.

Terel asked whether people can be scared to death. The answer is yes.

In the short term, adrenaline affects the heart.

Adrenaline works on special receptors that are in the heart muscle. When these receptors are activated, large amounts of calcium will rush into the heart cells. Calcium is necessary for heart contraction. If you have a large amount of adrenaline with a large amount of calcium, heart muscle keeps contracting and it doesn’t get a chance to relax.

The heart is unique because it has electrical connections which establish the rhythm. Think of it like the ticking of a clock. The adrenaline can cause electrical connections to become hyperstimulated. That’s where abnormal rhythms can lead to sudden death.

If somebody has any type of heart condition, whether it’s an enlarged heart, congestive heart failure, or abnormal heart rhythm, it can easily tip that person into something called V. Fib or ventricular fibrillation. V. Fib is life-threatening. People who go into this rhythm don’t have a proper heartbeat and they can’t circulate blood from the heart out to the rest of the body. Within seconds to minutes, the person will die. This is a common type of sudden death.

The second way of being scared to death is cumulative. We talked about people who get into arguments at work or with their family or car accident, they are naturally going to have higher levels of adrenaline. But there are other day-to-day issues, including heavy traffic, financial issues, or stress about a project that also releases adrenaline periodically. This makes people feel lightheaded or dizzy. Some people get tunnel vision. It goes away and then it comes back again as soon as they have some other argument or issue going on in their day-to-day lives. In this situation, permanent damage can occur to the heart muscle over time. So these people may die a month later or 6 months later due to the excessive adrenaline.

For example, after the 9/11 attacks in New York City, there was a 35% increase in heart attacks over the next 2 months in October and November. This was researched and it was felt that the stress of that horrible event caused a number of people to develop heart conditions that became permanent and ultimately lead to death.

The problem is on death certificates, the medical diagnosis will be a heart attack or stroke. It’s not going to say “scared to death”. That’s why it’s very difficult to track that.

We do know that some people are more predisposed to having complications, including ventricular fibrillation or any other arrhythmia. Those people are usually going to be overweight, have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, or some other problem with their blood circulation. If you mix and other factors such as medications, drugs, and alcohol, the risk of having complications increases a lot more.

I hope you learned a little bit more about being scared to death, the fight or flight response, and adrenaline. I want to thank Terel again for sending in a great question. You can check out her podcast Health Science for the Rest of Us. You can visit her website at

If you have a question that you’ve been thinking about, just record it on your phone or computer. Connect with us on social media and we will give you an email address so you can send it to me. I’ll research it and do my best to answer it on one of next week’s episodes.

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