The Meaning Behind the Phrase 'Scared to Death'

Horrified nervous anxious and scared lady
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'Scared to death' is a common phrase. ‘Don’t scare her to death,’ or ‘that almost scared me to death,’ are frequently used expressions. The idea that a sudden fright could be so severe that it could cause immediate death has been around for generations.

The reasoning behind the concept of being 'scared to death' lies in the notion that seeing something scary could completely overcome a person, literally causing the most severe physiological response possible, which is death.

While the saying ‘scared to death’ is often considered just a casual expression, many wonder if it could truly happen. Let's examine whether there are any verifiable scientific facts to support the idea that a person could be scared to death.

Are There Documented Reports of People Being Scared to Death?

Given the popular notion that a person could be scared to death and the known bodily changes that can result from being scared, it makes sense to turn to the scientific evidence to see if there is, in fact, any medical documentation of people being scared to death.

As it turns out there are almost no reports of sudden death induced by fear, but they do, indeed, exist.

Searching through the medical literature dating back 30 years, there are reports that point to a weak relationship between long-term anxiety and the exacerbation of already existing heart problems, but not usually to a degree that would be expected to cause a sudden heart attack, a stroke or death.

Actual reports of people who were literally scared to death are also extremely rare, with one notable compilation of coroner’s reports that attributed 10 documented deaths to possible episodes of extreme fear. These incidents were said to have involved individuals who had a known cardiovascular disease and were described as occurring during criminal events in which the victim who was terrified, was believed to have died from the fear, and not from an injury.

Brain damage and strokes or TIAs are not normally associated with being scared. So while fear induces a physical response, it is only rarely severe enough to cause death. Certainly, fear is more often associated with panic attacks, fainting, anxiety, shortness of breath, hyperventilation, palpitations and a sense of heart racing or heart thumping, and rarely, death.

Feeling Scared

The feeling of fear certainly does have a real impact on your body. Unexpected life events that trigger sudden fear usually provoke unpleasant emotional feelings because of the surprise element, the real sense of potentially imminent danger, as well as an inherent uncertainty about the ultimate outcome of the scary events.

In addition to unwelcome and unpredictable fear, countless people deliberately seek out the experience of sudden fear through horror-inducing entertainment, particularly during the Halloween season.

And then there is a third type of scary experience, which happens when you encounter a slowly unfolding, gradual, or unsettling fear that lingers. This may happen when you are faced with anxiety-provoking life situations, such as the fear of losing your job or the fear of a major illness.

Being Scared Impacts Your Body

Your body responds to the experience of being scared almost immediately. Hormonal responses can induce what is often described as the body's 'fight or flight' response. This biological fight or flight response to fear may include a variety of physical responses, some of which you might clearly notice, and some of which are less conspicuous.

You might remember experiencing some of these common fear responses the last time you felt scared. When you have been afraid, you may have noticed that your breathing becomes fast and shallow, your palms become cold, clammy and sweaty and your body perspires, particularly in the underarm area.

Other, subtler effects of being scared can include a dry mouth, less focused vision and a sense of butterflies in your stomach.

As far as the brain’s response to fear, many people notice a sense of muddled thinking when they are scared. Being scared does not necessarily cause actual brain malfunction, weakness, numbness or true disorientation, but instead, redirects the body's energy so that you cannot concentrate. There are often reports of passing out or fainting in response to fear, and these episodes are not generally associated with a lasting health problem.

And, in some extreme situations, people who are suddenly scared may experience a distressing loss of bladder or bowel control.

A person who is scared may also experience alterations in blood pressure, particularly mild to moderate elevations in blood pressure. Fear may also trigger a rapid heart rate. Most people are not able to feel or sense the elevated blood pressure, but the rapid heart rate can produce a sense that your heart is racing or your heart is pounding.

Of all of these fear reactions, the most concerning, and, possibly physically dangerous physical effects of fear are the elevated blood pressure and rapid heartbeat. Most of the usual physical fear reactions are uncomfortable, embarrassing and, sometimes even physically distressing. The big question is whether the high blood pressure and racing heart that are induced when a person is scared can cause a person to literally be ‘scared to death.’

Common Effects of Fear

Being scared as a result of watching a frightening movie, or visiting a recreational haunted house is more likely to cause short-term problems such as repeatedly imagining strange noises, short-lived restlessness, disturbed sleep lasting for a few days or bad dreams. Even significant life experiences that evoke feelings of being scared are unlikely to cause serious physical health problems but can induce long-term emotional problems such as persistent nightmares, chronic anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

A Word From Verywell

The idea of being scared to death has been around for ages. While the medical facts may link extreme and sudden fear with major medical events, true reports of people being scared to death are scarce. That does not mean that such events don't exist. So, if you think you want to 'enjoy' a scary movie or a visit to a 'haunted house,' you are likely to be perfectly fine. But, if you start to become dizzy or feel your heart racing, maybe you should have a change of scenery, just to be safe.

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