Can We Really Be Scared To Death? Yes!  

New research shows that it can happen even if you’re perfectly fit and healthy! In fact, cardiologists have identified a rare heart condition called “stress cardiomyopathy.” It has a lot of the classic symptoms of a heart-attack – including chest pain, weakness, and shortness of breath. The difference is that stress cardiomyopathy happens suddenly, with no evidence of blood clots or blocked arteries.  And it happens in people who’ve suffered a traumatic experience – like the loss of a loved one, a mugging, a natural disaster or a severe fright. There was even a spike in cases after the September 11th terrorist attacks! And doctors say all the patients were healthy just before the stressful event happened. 

Exactly how can being scared kill you? Dr. Martin Samuels is a neurologist who says that when we experience a sudden fright, our nervous system sends out a rush of adrenaline, just in case we have to run from danger.  Our heart rate and blood pressure also spike, and our muscles tense.

But in people with stress cardiomyopathy, doctors have found that the adrenaline spike throws off the heart’s normal rhythm, making it beat wildly! In some cases, MRI scans reveal that the heart takes on the shape of an octopus – ballooning in one area, and contracting in another. With most people, the body takes this all in stride. But doctors say there are hundreds of cardiac deaths each year that may be “fear-related”.

The good news? Most people who survive stress cardiomyopathy will recover completely within a few weeks. And unlike heart-attacks, having this scary heart condition once doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at risk of experiencing it ever again.