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Is it Possible to Be Scared to Death?

A couple weeks ago, along with more than $270,000,000 worth of other Americans, I saw the movie It. As is the case with most horror movies I see, I wasn’t as scared as I hoped to be. At least, I wasn’t especially frightened by the clown Pennywise himself. What did frighten me was the notion that fear itself—what Pennywise ultimately represents—could kill. I may not scare easily in a movie theater, but I scare extremely easily just about everywhere else. If it really is possible for a person to die of fear, surely I am one of the most likely candidates. I got in touch with a few experts hoping to be reassured that my outsize terror at the world around me cannot, actually, kill me, but no such luck. “It's true that any heightened emotional state—whether it’s fear or something else—can kill you,” says Suzanne Steinbaum, director of the Women's Heart-Health Program at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “There's even an increased risk of heart attack during something like the Super Bowl or the World Series.” Data on the exact rate of occurrence is nearly impossible to come by, but Steinbaum says doctors can see clear upticks in heart-attack deaths on and around these sorts of events. And while on paper these deaths may be labeled as heart attacks or strokes, because the precipitating factor is an overwhelming emotion, Steinbaum says it’s fair to categorize them as being caused by fear (or stress, anxiety, or excitement, as the case may be). It’s key that the emotion is “overwhelming.” Human brains have evolved to deal effectively with mild to moderate fear stimuli—it’s only when experiencing extraordinary fear (or another emotion) that our bodies become less well-suited to cope. Humaira Siddiqi, the chief of psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente in northern Virginia, tells me that when we start to experience fear, or any other emotion, it begins in a part of the brain called the amygdala. In mild to moderate cases, this information is then relayed to the hippocampus, situated directly above it. The hippocampus puts our emotions into context. Consider your reaction any time you think you spot something moving from the corner of your eye—your amygdala may process fear or alarm, thinking you’ve seen a mouse, or a centipede, or something else awful. The hippocampus is where you realize you either saw (a) nothing, or (b) yes, a mouse or a centipede, but neither one will hurt you. Only when fear is too big and too sudden do people run into trouble. “When you have a massive surge of a fear response, it can sometimes bypass the hippocampus, and when it does that, the fear doesn't have a context,” says Siddiqi. “It's just fear. It hijacks the brain.”

Read More: The Atlantic

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