You've probably heard of the body's "fight or flight" response: It's the complex set of biological reactions that your body produces in response to a perceived threat. It evolved from when we were living in the wild and were often faced with serious threats from predators. Having it work correctly meant the difference between life and death for our ancestors. Initiated inside your brain by your hypothalamus and adrenal cortical systems, it causes an instant release of adrenaline, which in turn, cause increase in body temperature, brain activity, muscle reaction, and a variety of other things which essentially jumpstart your body into action: Your pupils dilate (so you can focus better), and your immune and digestive systems shut down (to conserve energy), If you've ever been suddenly startled, you know probably know the feeling of the adrenaline rush that instantly flushes over your body. Although this biological response has kept us out of the mouths of predators for millennia, it can cause some serious heart issues itself, like ventricular fibrillation, which is where the electrical signals controlling your heartbeat fall out of rhythm and prevent your heart from pumping blood.
Another side effect of too much fear, or in this case, grief, is stress cardiomyopathy, aka "Broken Heart Syndrome", which has been observed in people who have recently experienced the death of a loved one or serious trauma, like a car accident. Stress cardiomyopathy is sort of like your fight-or-flight response goes overboard and causes some symptoms that are very similar to a heart attack.
Although being "scared to death" is something we usually associate with older folks, two recent studies have collected hundreds of reports of otherwise healthy people dying suddenly after they find themselves in traumatic situations: like amusement park rides, and car accidents where the victim sustained minor physical injuries. Have you ever been so scared you thought you were going to die? Share your scariest experiences in the comments below!
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Can You Really Scare Someone to Death? (via How Stuff Works)
"While we all know the importance of taking care of the ticker, there may be some fear triggers that we just can't avoid, like a terrorist attack or an earthquake."
How Fear Works (via How Stuff Works)
"To produce the fight-or-flight response, the hypothalamus activates two systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the adrenal-cortical system."
Norepinephrine (via Rice.edu) (PDF)
"Norepinephrine is a catecholamine with multiple roles including as a hormone and a neurotransmitter."
Ventricular Fibrillation (via American Heart Association)
"Ventricular fibrillation (v-fib for short) is the most serious cardiac rhythm disturbance. The lower chambers quiver and the heart can't pump any blood, causing cardiac arrest."
Can You Die of a Broken Heart? (Via WebMD)
"This problem -- which is also dubbed "broken heart syndrome" -- may be the real issue in some cases that initially appear to be a heart attack."
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