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Scared to Death

by: Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, November 4, 2007.

Yes, there are actual recorded deaths by voodoo. Cannon (who coined the term "Voodoo Death") was the first scientist to write seriously about the phenomenon. Cannon reasoned that these deaths by voodoo were the result of over-excitement.

At the time, Cannon was studying mammalian survival strategies. He hypothesized that voodoo death was due to the heightened arousal that get's triggered under extreme fear. This wired in propensity is called the "fight or flight response".

But most people probably know about Voodoo Death because of the James Bond movie about Caribbean Death and Voodoo (click through to see which movie title).

Cannon just about had it right. However, it is now believed that a "wired-in" survival strategy, the freeze response, is the explanation for Voodoo Death.

The fear system and mental health

One of the ideas that MyShrink promotes is that many of our mental health problems are rooted in the fear system (including fears related to our attachment history).

This fear system is based in the lower "reptilian" brain (i.e. brain stem and it's connections to the limbic system where the amygdala is located). Because it lies in the lower brain we don't typically have direct control over it (i.e. getting hungry, sleepy etc.)

But it is our higher brain--the prefrontal cortex--that allows us to ascribe meaning to events and to help calm us down so that we do not die from the freeze or immobility response... unless our beliefs are working against us...hence Voodoo Death.

death by voodoo

"His cheeks blanch, and his eyes become glassy, and the expression of his face becomes horribly distorted. He attempts to shriek but usually the sound chokes in his throat, and all that one might see is froth at his mouth. His body begins to tremble and his muscles twitch involuntarily. He sways backward and falls to the ground, and after a short time he appears to be in a swoon. He finally composes himself, goes to his hut and there frets to death."

R. Herbert Basedow (1925), The Australian Aboriginal


Cannon assumed that voodoo death was caused by over-activation of the sympathetic nervous system (i.e. like being over-excited).

David Lester, a researcher who later followed up on Cannon's work, proprosed another explanation. He suggested that the parasympathetic nervous system was the real culprit. The parasympathetic nervous system as you may know calms down the nervous system when we're ready to relax. This is known as the relaxation response, or what somatic practitioners refer to as the ventral vagal response.

Stephen Porges elaborated on his theory by explaining that it isn't the ventral vagal response that's at work in Voodoo Death. Porges uncovered another branch of the parasympathetic nervous system called the dorsal vagal branch which is triggered when we become overwhelmed.

BTW, his discovery of the dorsal branch has opened up a whole new area of study that sheds light on depression, PTSD, illness (Scaer, 2005) and even joy.


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Fear and the Dorsal Vagal Response

When we experience a sharp onset in our fear state Porges suggested that this sudden increase in excitation (or activation as it is often called) propells a compensatory reaction in the nervous system called the "dorsal brake".

The dorsal brake is initiated when high rates of heart beat, breath, blood pressure etc. reach intolerable levels that threaten survival. Most mammals cannot survive this sudden braking system and die as a result (i.e. the freeze response).

Because the human species has a developed cortex, we can use our intelligence to make sense of what just happened (i.e. with a traumatic event). That is of course, if our belief system does not sway us.

In the case of Voodoo Death, the individual's belief system does not provide the necessary meaning that might calm the individual down.

In fact, it is working the other way around. The individual's belief system is creating a fear state that increases a sudden rise in activation. The more dramatic the increase in activation, the more the dorsal brake is likely to come on (this has yet to be confirmed by research however...although it might be hard to get subjects for this study smiley-surprised.gif).

My Personal Musings

Do problems such as "fainting" and "nose bleeds" (possible evidence of the dorsal brake) appear more often in clients seeking therapy for anxiety, depression and PTSD? Is Porges' theory an explanation for them? Just possible. I've certainly seen a reduction in fainting episodes and nosebleeds in my practice as the nervous system becomes more regulated.

Somatic therapists are certainly rejoicing. Porges' theory explains what we see in our clinical practices. When you reduce fear in the nervous system, so called "pathology" disappears. This is a generalization but I continue to be amazed at the power of the somatic approach to anxiety, depression and issues related to developmental gaps (which pretty much covers it!).



Related Topics

The Freeze or Immobility Response

Dorsal Vagal and Depression


During states of high fear, we will "lighten" the load to make it easier for us to run and get away.

This "wired-in" propensity to defecate when we're scared is recognized by all cultures.

The phrase, "scared shitless"1 or its equivalent can be found in every language. Take a look:

shocked homemaker

peur shitless - French

angst shitless - German

害怕shitless - Chinese

miedo shitless - Spanish

paura shitless - Italian

испытывая чувство shitless - Russian

死ぬほどおびえて - Japanese공포

shitless - Korean

assustado shitless - Portuguese

zesrac sie ze strachu - Polish 

...maybe a common thing.


Cannon WB. "Voodoo" Death. Am J Public Health. 2002;92:1593-6; Cannon, W.B. (1942) "Voodoo" death. American Anthropologist, 44: 169.

Lester, David, Voodoo Death: Some new thoughts on an old phenomenon. American Anthropolgist, New Series, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Jun., 1972), pp. 386-390.

Porges, Stephen, (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modification of our eveolutionary heritage. A polyvagal theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301-318.

Stephen Porges' identified two, not one, branch of the parasympathetic nervous system. His discovery of the dorsal vagal (and its relationship to the ventral vagal) has helped us to understand the freeze response and its relationship to voodoo death and PTSD. The polyvagal theory has also been useful in understanding the mind body connection. You can access his classic 1995 article here (you will be taken off site:

Orienting in a Defensive World...A Polyvagal Theory.

Scaer, Robert, C., (2005). The Trauma Spectrum, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


1 It was Dr. Stephen Porges who so eloquently explained this dynamic at the First Somatic Experiencing Conference in Berkeley, California, October 24-25, 2007.


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