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The Effects of Fear on the Heart

Posted by Dan Cromar on 10/28/2015
Fear is an emotion. Fear has many fans, despite the distress aroused by a sense of impending danger, whether a threat is real or imagined. There are people around the world who seek after a good scare. They cannot seem to get enough of the “fight or flight” response with its heightened physiological changes. The sudden rush of energy makes them feel alive, followed by a comforting feeling of euphoria.

A rush of hormones triggers this unexpected stimulus signaling a host of systems in the body to respond with the necessary energy to either act in defense of or escape from the impending danger. Sometimes the “fright” response overtakes the body with weak knees. The inability to move is akin to playing dead, an attempt to appear less appetizing to predators. 

What Effect Does Fear Have on the Heart

Fear is indiscriminate. It knows only to prepare the body to react to danger. Some of the hormones released in the body in reaction to fear are epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol. Each one specifically acts to regulate the body:

Epinephrine controls heart rate and metabolism as it causes the blood vessels and air passages to dilate or expand.
Norepinephrine causes an increase in heart rate allowing more blood to flow to the muscles while releasing stored energy in the form of glucose.
Cortisol acts to increase blood sugar and calcium and frees white blood cells.

The heart rate increases to provide sufficient blood flow to the muscles for the “flight” response. When the heart is beating so fast, it can cause a sense of heaviness or tightness in the chest. For some people, it feels like chest pains, a considered warning sign of a heart attack. The differences between a real heart attack and the anxiety response are subtle. However, the differences between fear and anxiety are significant. 

A rapid heartbeat or “heartbeat awareness” may be the symptom of anxiety. The vicious cycle of anxiety and the fear of a possible cardiac event can easily escalate, as in the instance of a panic attack. This produces difficulty breathing. A change in the volume of carbon dioxide from hyperventilating may cause lightheadedness and the difficulty in distinguishing severe anxiety symptoms from a serious heart condition. It is best to have this checked out with your doctor to be sure.

Adrenaline: The Drug of Choice

The adrenaline hormone, epinephrine, is responsible for numerous physiological reactions familiar to those people who experience fear. These responses may even occur in a heated conversation that leaves the participants feeling flushed and shaky due to the increased heart rate and shallow breathing. Public speaking is enough to cause people to feel dizzy or light headed and nauseous. 

For the thrill seeker, adrenaline is the drug of choice. The mountain climber, the roller coaster addict, the skydiver, the racecar driver all share in their pursuit of the excitement and pleasure produced by the adrenal gland dump into the bloodstream. The same thing occurs when bungee jumping, mountain biking or watching scary movies.

Is it Possible to Become Too Scared?

Panic attacks affect people of all ages. Heart attacks in younger people with no previously diagnosed heart disorders are extremely rare. Extreme fear or being too scared cannot cause heart failure unless the person already has a serious heart condition. Despite all this, there have been people who have dropped dead in very scary situations. However, laboratory studies showing changes in the cardiovascular system subsequent to psychological stress cannot prove a causal link.
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