It’s not just in voodoo where beliefs can kill. Ideas and psychological states can also be deadly in other situation.
People Who Are Scared to Death
In some cases, people can literally be scared to death. People have died sudden deaths as a result of break-ins where assailants never touched them. Children have literally been scared to death an amusement park rides. You can find scores of reports detailing car accident victims who sustain only minor injuries, but yet die of the stress involved. (Beck, 2012) Prisoners facing a firing squad have dropped dead – nothing unusual here, until upon later examination it was discovered that all the bullets missed. In another instance we know of, a 17-year-old girl in Haiti dropped dead from fright after panic spread throughout her school over false rumors that another earthquake was about to strike. (This was a few weeks after the massive quake that devastated the country.) This perfectly healthy girl with no underlying medical conditions collapsed and died right there in her classroom of a fright-induced heart attack. Research has found an increase in spontaneous deaths that occurred immediately after the Northridge earthquake of California in 1994, as well as after the terrorist attacks of September 11 – and not just in New York City. (Komaroff, 2-23-2009)
These type of cases aren’t normal or typical reactions to trauma, but they happen frequently enough that medical doctors are well-familiar with the phenomena and have assigned these sudden deaths a name: stress cardiomyopahy. It’s caused by a sudden surge of adrenaline, triggered by either acute stress or emotional trauma, that ends up overwhelming the heart and causing a fatal heart attack. (Winslow, 2-9-2010) These psychologically-induced deaths can be brought about by severe fright, trauma, or even simply highly emotional events such as the loss of a loved one. In every instance, “you have people in acute, sudden heart failure who were perfectly healthy an hour earlier, says Ilan Wittstein, a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore who studies this condition. (Beck, 2012)
Sudden Deaths as a Result of Psychological or Emotional Trauma
Severe emotional traumas can also leave a person so distraught that it causes their death. Break-ups such as a divorce or separation have been known to trigger stress-induced cardiomyopathy. (Winslow, 2-9-2010) Another fairly prominent trigger is the loss of a loved one, particularly a spouse. The fact that attachment injuries (separation from an important person) are potent enough to induce sudden death is yet more evidence of how important (and potentially traumatic) these issues are to children
In a paper published around 40years ago in the journal Annals of International Medicine, psychiatrist George Engel reported on 170 different cases of spontaneous death linked to a variety of psychological triggers. Aside from the factors already discussed, spontaneous death could be caused by a sudden loss of self-esteem or a recent threat of some kind. There were also instances where it occurred following a triumph or the ending to a long struggles; such as in the case of a prisoner who collapsed and died immediately upon returning home, or a professional who dies after having just received a major award or upon concluding a significant accomplishment. (Komaroff, 2-23-20090
Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (or SUNDS) is another example of how beliefs can be fatal. In laymen’s terms, this condition refers to people who have nightmares that kill them. (And you thought the premise for the horror movie Nightmare On Elm Street was entirely fictional.) While such occurrences aren’t common, they have nonetheless happened enough times before to draw the attention of researchers looking into the phenomenon.
One psychologist who studies the condition has documented several hundred cases of SUNDS in the U.S. alone. (Madrigal, 2011) And once again, there’s a strong belief component tied to these deaths: Those who perish almost always believe in some type of evil entity possesses the power to stalk and kill them during their dreams. In many of the cases, this could be traced to a cultural belief that espoused the notion of nocturnal spirits. They believed this entity to be real, they believed it to be sucking away their living spirit during a dream, and so their body responded accordingly – by dying.