Is it Possible to Die of Fear?

Can we die as a consequence of experiencing something that's intensely emotional? Scientists have been cautious in answering this question. What do we know today?
Is it Possible to Die of Fear?
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Written by Edith Sánchez

Last update: 22 February, 2024

The idea of dying of fear is endemic in our everyday language. “I was scared to death,” you might say, or “I almost died of fear when I saw that”. However, could it be that this isn’t just a metaphorical expression, but a biological reality? Can an individual experience such intense fear that it causes their death?

Scientists approach this issue as a hypothesis. Ultimately, we all die for physical reasons: heart failure, brain failure, or both. As a rule, the medical examiner establishes the cause of death by referring to the organic deficiency that caused the death. Even if the deceased had suffered an emotional shock, it wouldn’t be listed as the cause of death.

Some experts think that it’s impossible to die of fear if there’s no vulnerability factor in the equation. In other words, if there was no previous organic anomaly. On the other hand, there are others who think that extreme states of emotional stress, anxiety, or what we commonly call fear can cause death. Which of them is right?

Love casts out fear but, conversely, fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth…in the end fear casts out even a man’s humanity.”

-Aldous Huxley-

dead person covered
From a theoretical point of view, it’s possible to die of fear

Being scared to death

Many scientists have wondered if it’s possible to die of fear. From a theoretical point of view, it’s perfectly plausible. However, as we noted before, it isn’t easy to determine if fear is a direct cause of death. Despite this fact, Dr. Mark Gillinov, from the Cleveland Clinic (USA), undertook the task of conducting research on the subject.

He studied participants who suffered from heart problems and compared them to others who were completely healthy. Gillinov explained that when an individual is confronted with a threatening stimulus, the body generates a fight-or-flight response: anxiety. This physical and emotional stress causes a medical condition of the heart, known as stress cardiomyopathy.

The disorder leads to the heart not being able to pump blood efficiently to the rest of the body. Consequently, the affected individual experiences palpitations, fatigue, and shortness of breath, among other symptoms.

Thus, there’s an increased probability that their cardiac function will decrease or fail. Sometimes, this leads to the heart ceasing to pump blood and could cause sudden death. However, research indicates that, although it’s possible, it’s extremely rare.

Yes, it’s possible to die of fear

Generally speaking, cardiologists agree that we can be scared to death. There’s even evidence to support it. During an earthquake in Los Angeles (United States), sudden deaths from heart failure increased five times. In all of these cases, people felt a sudden tightness in their chest and then instantly dropped dead during the highly stressful event.

Obviously, individuals with previous cardiac disorders are more likely to die of fear. That’s because they respond inappropriately to situations of high physical and emotional stress. But, this can also occur in those who do not have any medical condition.

Other interesting evidence comes from the physiologist, Walter Bradford, of Harvard University (USA). In his article, “Voodoo” Death”, published at the end of the 20th century, he spoke of the death of an individual due to fear caused by the action of a so-called ‘medicine man’. This was a case of death by fear. Other articles report similar cases.

Woman afraid of the dark
According to cardiology experts, it’s possible to die of fear in the face of a highly stressful event.

The body and fear

Dying of fear, or a really intense emotional state, shouldn’t really be surprising. If it is, it’s because we continue to maintain the idea that body and mind are two separate realities. However, in reality, they form a unit at all times.

Fear causes a reaction in the brain and it reacts by producing a greater amount of adrenaline. This prepares the body for fight or flight. If the fear is extremely intense and, consequently, higher amounts of the neurotransmitter are produced, the heart may be affected.

Adrenaline causes the calcium channels in cells to open. When they receive more volume of this substance, they change their electrical potential. It leads to the contraction of the heart muscle. If the state persists, ventricular fibrillation occurs, which may be accompanied by a drop in pressure. If medical attention isn’t received, death occurs. Therefore, in conclusion, yes, it’s possible to die of fear.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.