Can You Die From Embarrassment? What We Know

You walk into a crowded living room full of people you've only just met and slip on some water someone seems to have spilled on the floor. You try awkwardly to not let your legs get away from under you but you fail and land on your rear end with a loud thud. Everyone turns to look and you feel your cheeks flush red. To you, the moment seemed to last forever; but, in reality, it all happened within a matter of seconds.

Embarrassment is a painful emotion we feel when we've purposefully or involuntarily done or said something that veers away from something we deem "socially acceptable," and we've all probably felt it to some degree in our lives. The physiological reactions related to embarrassment don't stop at a red face though. There's a lot more going on in your body like a fast heartbeat, rapid breathing, goosebumps, dilated pupils, sweating, and the release of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline (via Cornell Center for Materials Research). You may feel a strong urge to crawl into a hole and stay there too. 

Can you literally die of embarrassment, as the saying goes? Even though an 1860 study published in the British Medical Journal (via BBC Science Focus) talked of a housemaid who had possibly died due to embarrassment after she was caught stealing food from storage, there isn't a lot of science to back this claim. What we do know is how adrenaline serves a purpose in the fight-or-flight response and that too much of it can be damaging to your heart, especially if you have a pre-existing heart condition (per WebMD). An occasional episode of embarrassment probably isn't going to kill you, though, even though you might feel like you want to die. Having said this, however, it's important to know that embarrassment could lead to your death in a more indirect way if you allow it to stop you from getting needed medical care.

Not getting your health checked because of embarrassment can lead to death

Not everyone is eager to have colonoscopies or heart tests done to assess if there might be underlying issues they should be dealing with. In fact, according to Gothenburg Health, it is possible to die from diseases like colon cancer if you're embarrassed about getting a colonoscopy done. In addition to feeling anxiety and fear over the scope procedure itself, people may be embarrassed about having a colonoscope inserted through their rectum. "Colon cancer screenings can find colon cancer early when it is most treatable or, in many cases, prevent cancer from developing. And yet, too many people still don't get screened. As a result, colorectal cancer remains the second most common cause of cancer-related death in both men and women," explained University Hospitals gastroenterologist, Dr. Chris Pluskota. 

There is also the idea that getting screened for medical problems might make you look dramatic, at least according to some research done by Pink Hope (via Her Heart). According to Dr. Linda Worrall-Carter of Her Heart, it is not uncommon for people to die because of this, especially when it has to do with heart health. There are warning signs of a heart attack you should never ignore — like pressure in the chest, pain through your arm, shoulders, and neck, and nausea. 

When to let embarrassment take its course and when to not

Contrary to what you may think, feeling embarrassed actually serves a social function, according to University of New South Wales social psychologist Lisa Williams (via HuffPost). 

"Researchers have argued that, just like other emotions, embarrassment actually helps us deal with some of the situations that we find ourselves in. So in a situation of a social faux pas, what embarrassment does for us is it leads us to engage in behaviours that make others forgive us for doing the faux pas," explained the expert. So the next time you're in a social setting and say or do something untoward, try and let the moment pass and maybe even use it to inject some humor into the setting. It's also important to remember that different people feel embarrassed about different things. Not everyone might be as embarrassed about burping loudly as you might. At the very least, feeling embarrassed is a good reminder to be kind to yourself and not judge yourself too harshly. The people around you might follow up on your embarrassing moment with the same level of empathy. 

As for health checks that you're putting off because you're embarrassed, the experts warn against doing this. It's okay to trust your gut feeling and get your heart health (or anything else) checked out. When it comes to colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer, talk to your doctor about your concerns. They've likely heard similar concerns before and may be able to walk you through what really happens when you get a colonoscopy. You may avoid early death by getting it done.