• Kate Maxwell

Acrophobia – A fear of heights.

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

Do you ever find yourself feeling dizzy or light-headed when looking down from the top of tall buildings? Do images of cliff-tops cause a tightening across your chest or your breathing rate to increase? While feeling some discomfort in high places isn’t unusual, an increase in panic or anxiety as a response may mean you suffer from a fear of heights.

Acrophobia – What is it?

Acrophobia defines an extreme or intense fear of heights, which can cause an individual to experience significant panic and anxiety when faced with such stimulus. For some, this fear is brought on when standing on the top floor of a skyscraper or tall mountain, but for others small heights such as being up a ladder or on a stool may be enough to trigger a negative response. A common fear, acrophobia may even cause individuals enough distress to affect their day-to-day life or cause them to avoid heights altogether.

But what causes a fear of heights? Acrophobia can often develop as a result of an individual having a traumatic experience whilst involving heights. Such experiences may include falling, or watching someone else fall from a height (either large or small), or if the individual has suffered a negative experience or panic attack while in a higher place. Similar with a lot of learned behaviours, individuals are also more susceptible to having acrophobia if a family member or close friend does, due to watching the behaviours and reactions of others as a child.

What are the symptoms of acrophobia?

Acrophobia can result in both physical and psychological symptoms – overall being marked by feelings of significant panic and anxiety when faced with a large or small height.

How we react physically to stress or fear is often quite similar, with the difference being in the stimulus or phobia that causes the reaction. If experiencing acrophobia, physical symptoms may include chest pain/ tightness across the chest, increased heart rate and difficulty breathing, and/ or an increase in perspiration at the thought or sight or high places. In more extreme cases, this stress could turn into shaking or trembling of the hands or whole body. If individuals with acrophobia find themselves in a high place, they may also be susceptible to feeling sick or lightheaded/ dizzy when looking up or down from a high place, or even feel as if they are falling or losing their balance.

When we talk about psychological symptoms these refer to the panic and anxiety that one may experience when facing or thinking about their fear of heights. Such panic and anxiety could be caused from physically being in a high place, climbing stairs or ladders, standing on rooftops or a balcony, looking out a window from a top floor or driving an overpass or hill road. For others, just thinking of having to go up to a high place, or an image of such could be enough to trigger a negative response. This fear may cause enough stress that an individual may look to change their daily routines or worry excessively about the potential of having to encounter heights in future.

Ways to deal with or treat acrophobia:

Acrophobia, like a number of phobias, doesn’t always require treatment. For some it may be enough to just avoid the feared situation by removing it from the individual’s day-to-day life. For others however, facing up to heights or being in a situation where one is confronted with a high place may be unavoidable. In these instances, it is good to have some systems in place that can help get you through or calm you down enough until the situation passes. Check out some suggested coping methods below – and remember that everyone is an individual, so each reaction and experience will be different for each and every person.

Breathing: When we experience fear we move into our sympathetic nervous system, or our fight or flight response. As a result our body prepares to give us the best chance of survival by heightening all of our senses and increasing our ventilation and heart rate in order to pump more blood and oxygen around our bodies. However, focusing on slowing breathing rates back down, might be just what an individual needs to help bring them back to the present. If you find yourself in a situation that triggers your fear of heights, try ‘Box Breathing’. Box breathing is a simple tool used to bring our heart and breathing rates back down to resting level. Simply breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and then finish by holding for another four seconds. Repeat as many times as needed, and if possible, complete the exercise with your eyes closed to help you really focus.

Therapy or Exposure Therapy: In more extreme cases, and individual might want to seek out the help of a therapist in order to help overcome acrophobia. Therapists can help to teach relaxation techniques to use in situations where one finds themselves in a high place, or may even look to work on exposure therapy – working with imagines, virtual reality (VR) technology or through watching videos of heights or high places to help normalise and reduce the associated fear attached for the individual.

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