Why does one’s face turn pale white when one is frightened?

A person who is hemophobic sees bloody people in a car collision. You are on your way home, walking down the street when a stray dog suddenly chased you. Your classmate, unprepared, is suddenly requested by your professor to present his report in class. When unexpected things happen, such as witnessing an unusual scenario, encountering dangers, and confronted by anxiety-causing situations, people usually get anxious, nervous, or scared. And one most common visible manifestations of this is the change in facial expression as well as facial appearance and color.

People might say you look sick and pale. You look like you have lost the color in your face skin. It looks like you’ve seen a ghost, you’re so pale! You’re pasty! But technically, it is called face blanching. Anxiety, stress, and fear are born from sudden and unpredictable events that usually causes one’s face turn pale. But what is happening in the body that causes this change in the appearance of the face’s skin?

We first need to understand how our nervous system works. There are two divisions of the autonomous (uncontrolled) nervous system: The sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system helps regulate many homeostatic mechanisms in living organisms, including humans. The sympathetic nervous system works involuntarily or without any conscious direction. It regulates crucial functions in the body, such as blood pressure, heart rate, pupil dilation, body temperature, sweating, and digestion.


It is also responsible for the body’s rapid involuntary response to stressful and dangerous situations. That is why it is better known as the “fight or flight” response system of the body. The system is continuously active at a basic level to maintain the balance and stability of the internal bodily conditions.

From a simpler perspective, the human body operates in two modes: The first is the calm or relaxed mode, and second, the excited mode. The body is in a calm or relaxed mode when it is just in a normal and usual daily habit, such as sitting, eating, lying down, etc. On the other hand, it transforms into an excited mode when you are physically applying yourself in activities such as lifting weights, running, and so on.

Fight-or-flight Response


Fight or flight is a natural reaction of our body when we face dangers or threats. During this time, the body prepares itself to either combat (fight) the object of our fear, anxiety, or escape (flight). However, it is often the case with anxiety that there is no physical object to combat or run away from. The body transforms into the excited mode from calm mode, and accordingly, the blood distribution mechanism kicks into action.

Although, you won’t be able to see the amount of blood rushing to a particular part of your body to prepare for the present anxiety-causing situation. Still, the most visible sign of this shift includes the paling of the face’s color and drying out of the mouth and getting cold of the hands in some cases. These manifestations happen because your body prepares itself with force and strength as you can muster to deal with the sudden unexpected threat or risk.

Another reason for these body reactions is the release of the adrenaline hormone. Adrenaline or epinephrine is also known as the “fight-or-flight hormone,” is released by the adrenal glands and some neurons. It is released in response to a stressful, exciting, dangerous, or threatening situation. With adrenaline, your body reacts more quickly towards dangerous situations. Therefore your heart beats faster, your blood flow increases to the brain and muscles, and stimulates the body to make sugar to fuel.  When adrenaline is released suddenly, it’s often referred to as an adrenaline rush.


When you are chased by a dog or facing any danger, the fight-or-flight response in the body is triggered, and the direct result of which is the release of the hormone adrenaline into the bloodstream. This hormone’s effect is increased sweating, dry mouth, pupil dilation, an enhanced sense of smell, and pale skin.

Blood flow to the body’s surface is reduced, which is one of the main reasons why your face turns pale during a nervous or scary encounter with something or sometimes with someone.