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Is It Possible to Die of Fright?

New Research Shows Increased Coagulation in Those With Anxiety Disorders

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Updated July 10, 2008

We often use references to our blood curdling or freezing in our veins to discuss extreme fear, such as that felt when going through a phobic experience. However, these statements are generally used as hyperbole. We know that we are not really about to die, but we just feel like we will. However, new research shows that this experience may be closer to reality than was originally believed.

The Experiment

A team of German researchers recently performed a study to determine whether these statements had any basis in reality. Franziska Geiser of the Clinic and Policlinic for Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy teamed with Ursula Harbrecht from the Institute of Experimental Haematology and Transfusion Medicine to study blood coagulation (clotting) patterns of people with anxiety disorders.

In order to rule out gender and age as possible influences, each participant with an anxiety disorder was matched with a healthy volunteer of the same age and sex. All volunteers gave small blood samples at the start of the experiment. They were then asked to perform a series of potentially anxiety-producing tasks on a computer. After completing the tasks, a second blood sample was taken.

The Analysis

The samples were then analyzed for signs of clotting. In the normal human body, coagulation is a healthy process that begins healing. It is counterbalanced by a process called fibrinolysis, which breaks down clots and keeps blood flowing. If the natural interaction between these processes is interrupted, the patient is at risk for developing a clotting disorder.

The Results

The blood of those who had anxiety disorders showed signs of increased coagulation and decreased fibrinolysis. This means that the volunteers with anxiety disorder could, over time, be at an increased risk for developing blood clots.

Researchers have long known that people with anxiety disorders are at an elevated risk for heart disease, but have not known exactly why. This could prove to be the missing link. However, it is important to keep in mind that a single study does not conclusively prove a theory. More research must be done. Additionally, the coagulation of all volunteers, both with and without anxiety disorders, was considered to be within normal limits. Therefore, it seems that other risk factors, such as obesity, smoking or lack of exercise, would also need to be present for heart disease to occur.

Much is still unknown about the possible link between anxiety and heart disease. For this and many other reasons, it is important to promptly seek treatment.

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