Well Ahead Blog

Back to Well Ahead Blog

How your heart reacts to fear

Riddle Hospital October 19, 2023 Heart Health

For some people, haunted houses, scary movies and creepy costumes are all part of the allure of Halloween. It can be fun to feel the rush that comes with being spooked — even if you’re expecting it.

But, when you’re not expecting it, fear can cause a physical and emotional response that isn’t always fun. In fact, for some people, it can even be a health risk.

“If you’ve ever ridden an intense ride at a theme park or gone through a haunted house, you’ve probably seen signs that caution against people with a history of heart problems taking part. That’s because, if you’re in poor cardiac health or have a history of cardiac problems, the physical side effects of the fear or excitement that comes along with these activities has the potential to be dangerous,” explains William Kornberg, DO, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Riddle Hospital, part of Main Line Health.

As we approach the spookiest time of the year, we take a look at what exactly happens to your heart when you’re afraid and how it can affect you in the long term.

Your heart on fear

When you’re afraid or stressed, the brain — not the heart — is the first part of your body to respond. A part of the brain called the hypothalamus releases the hormone epinephrine, more commonly known as adrenaline, to the rest of the body. This release then triggers the fight-or-flight response that many of us are used to feeling when we’re afraid or anxious.

This can cause a variety of physical reactions, like sweaty palms, dilated pupils, tense muscles and stomach pain or nausea. But it affects your heart specifically in three ways:

  • A quickened heartbeat
  • An increase in pulse rate and blood pressure
  • A change in breathing patterns (shortness of breath or rapid breathing)

“Once the brain issues a fight-or-flight instruction, the heart begins supplying the body with the blood and oxygen it needs to carry out either option,” explains Dr. Kornberg. “That’s what prompts each of these changes, and what can lead you to feel like your heart is beating out of your chest when you’re afraid or nervous.”

When fear takes its toll

While it’s normal — and a little fun — to be scared once in a while, these reactions can begin to take a toll on your body.

Consistently high blood pressure or repeated spikes in blood pressure can contribute to heart disease or heart failure. Previous research has also linked anxiety disorders to the development of heart disease and an increased risk for coronary events.

“If you’re constantly feeling anxious or stressed, it affects your heart and your overall health. A doctor or therapist can help you cope with these feelings and determine what relaxation techniques work best for you,” says Dr. Kornberg.

If you have high blood pressure, be sure to talk to your primary care physician about ways to lower your blood pressure. It could be by making small lifestyle changes like creating an exercise plan and adopting a heart-healthy diet. They may also recommend medication to control your high blood pressure if your systolic number (top number) is 140 or higher and your diastolic number (bottom number) is 90 or higher.

Next steps:

Make an appointment with William Kornberg, DO
Learn more about heart care at Main Line Health
Blood pressure and cholesterol: The truth behind the numbers