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Can you be scared to death? Emotions and their impact on your heart health

October 12, 2021


Fear, depression, and anxiety all can impact your heart's health.

Fear, depression, and anxiety all can impact your heart's health.

The scary season is upon us. Some of us enjoy being frightened by a movie or a haunted house attraction.

But can you be literally “scared to death”? We asked one of our cardiac experts about the role of fear and other emotions in heart health and found out what’s really scary. (Spoiler alert: It’s not Freddy Krueger.)


Though it’s rare, fear can harm your health, says Dr. Aditya Sharma, a WellSpan cardiologist.

Intense emotions in general can trigger a heart attack in people who are at risk and even among those without risk factors, though this is not a common cause of heart attacks. The phenomenon is called “stress cardiomyopathy,” when your brain goes into flight-or-fight response after a stress, prompting a surge of adrenaline. Your heart rate and blood pressure can go up, which can impact your heart’s electrical system.

You can experience symptoms similar to a heart attack, including chest pain, shortness of breath and sweating. Most people recover quickly, however this could lead to persistent heart muscle weakness among a small group of people.

“You don’t have be concerned that watching ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ is going to be harmful to your health,” Sharma said. “But you do need to be concerned about your emotional health and how it relates to your physical heart health.”

Depression and anxiety

Research shows that your mental health has physical effects on your body. Anxiety and depression both can lead to increased blood pressure, and both can increase your risk for heart disease.

“The other role that these emotions play in our health is that people who feeling depressed or anxious sometimes do not make good health choices,” Sharma said. “When we are having problems coping, we sometimes overeat, smoke, drink more than we should or retreat onto the couch. We may have problems with the quality of our sleep or even sleep too much. All of these factors are known to have a negative impact on our overall health, particularly our heart health.”


A 2017 study, published in the medical journal The Lancet, found that high levels of stress were associated with the development of heart disease, independent of other risk factors. The stress was thought to correlate with the development of inflammation in the arteries, among other changes.

Research previously showed that Monday mornings were the most common time to have a heart attack, linked to the return to work after the weekend. But more recent studies show that no longer is true – with heart attacks happening at any time, on any day of the week – leading to the theory that this is due to the fact that we are always “on” and at the mercy of our smart phones and work calls.

“We feel the need to be constantly connected and ‘on,’ unable to truly get a break and unwind,” Sharma said. “This is detrimental to our health and well being.”

Taking it to heart

“Your mind, body and heart are all connected, and depend on each other to function,” Sharma said. “It’s important you take care of all of them.”

WellSpan is here to help and support you, with care providers who are focused on the whole person and your overall wellness.

Here are some steps you can take for better heart health, all year long: