Phobias and Fears—Can You Literally Be Scared to Death?

Spiders, snakes, heights, political corruption—we're afraid of a lot of things. But what's the difference between a fear and a phobia? And can either literally scare you to death?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #391

What is the weirdest thing you're scared of?

I’ve mentioned before that I have a very illogical fear of giant squid. Maybe it’s the sharp-toothed suckers on the ends of their tentacles or the fact that their eyes are the size of frisbees (!!), but more likely it’s about the scale of their ocean habitat. So it’s less about teuthiphobia (fear of squid) or ommetaphobia (fear of eyes) and more about thalassophobia (fear of the vast emptiness of the sea). More than 80% of the ocean is unexplored, a fact that is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. Giant squid lurk so far below the surface that they were only first observed in their natural habitat in 2012. Most of our knowledge of them comes from after their deaths when their carcasses float to the surface. Creepy. 

I’m not the only one afraid of something that will most likely never harm me in my life.

I’m not the only one afraid of something that will most likely never harm me in my life. (Note, I said “most likely” because you never know—we’re not entirely sure where giant squid like to lurk!) I have a friend who has coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) and another with ophidiophobia (a fear of snakes). (Okay, that second friend is me again.) I’m also pretty sure my husband suffers from nomophobia (a fear of being without your phone).

It’s hard to imagine feeling any lutraphobia (a fear of otters) or turophobia (a fear of cheese). But if a phobia has a name, it means someone at some point needed to identify that phobia, even if not clinically.

What is the definition of a phobia?

Phobias are also irrational by definition. According to the American Psychological Association, a phobia is:

... a persistent and irrational fear of a specific situation, object, or activity which is consequently either strenuously avoided or endured with marked distress.

Our most common phobias are things like spiders, snakes, storms, heights, needles, social situations, or being alone. Women have long been observed to show a higher prevalence of phobias than men. 

How is a phobia different from a fear?

Having a fear of something is a bit different from having a phobia. Both are very real feelings, but our fears are rooted in very rational concerns and the realities of our circumstances.

The AMA defines fear as “a basic, intense emotion aroused by the detection of imminent threat.” According to the 2018 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, among more than 1,000 adults, the most common fear (74%) was a fear of corruption of government officials. Also high on the list: fear of oceans, rivers, lakes, and drinking water being polluted (~61%) and a fear of not having enough money for the future (57%). 

Fears are rooted in very rational concerns and the realities of our circumstances.

How does our body react to fears and phobias?

Rational or not, the experience of a fear or phobia is not just all in our heads. Our bodies can exhibit a real physiological response.

When we experience fear, our body reacts with our “flight-or-fight” response. We produce a rush of adrenaline that encourages us to act quickly and our bodies are flooded with endorphins to prepare us for physical activity. Our brain tells our body "It’s go time!" and we're either going to have to run or stay and fight to save ourselves. We can even use smells to signal that we are afraid.

Our body’s response to a phobia can be even more intense including feeling nauseated, fainting, sweating, and a general difficulty functioning normally. 

Can you literally die from fright?

In extreme cases of fearful reactions, the symptoms can be similar to those of a heart attack, including shortness of breath and chest pain. But unlike people who are actually experiencing a heart attack, those struggling with a bout of fear don’t have any blocked arteries. Instead, they're dealing with stress cardiomyopathy—a stress-induced failure of the heart muscle. This failure is temporary, though, and recovery is quick. 

The connection between the fear and your heart starts with that flight-or-fight response triggered by the brain.

The connection between the fear and your heart starts with that flight-or-fight response triggered by the brain. Your brain sends signals to the body that something is wrong and your heart reacts by raising your heart rate along with your blood pressure and blood glucose levels. But sometimes the response can go too far. All of this puts stress on your heart and can cause arrhythmia, which is a constriction of your blood vessels. Even without a blockage—as someone would more typically experience in a heart attack—the tightening of blood vessels can produce the same result which, in the worst cases, is death. 

So being literally scared to death is definitely possible. In fact, it doesn’t have to be fear that triggers the response, just a strong emotional reaction. During the FIFA World Cup in 2006 in Germany, the number of heart attacks increased by 2.66 times on the days the German team was playing. 

Being scared to death is likely very rare.

But being scared to death is likely very rare. There is not even any evidence to suggest that people with existing heart conditions are more susceptible to being scared to death. You don’t have to worry that you’re going to keel over at a haunted house or when a prankster in your family jumps out at you. How can we avoid such a rare and extreme fate? One doctor from the Cleveland Clinic suggests “living with limited stress.”

Oh, okay, sure—why didn’t I think of that?

Citations +
Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.