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Are you scared of heights?

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

Have you ever avoided peering over the edge of the handrail at the top of monuments or structures? Maybe you are reluctant to hike up hills, drive over bridges or even get close to the edge of the cliff?

Acrophobia is defined as a severe fear of heights. It is an anxiety disorder which is estimated to affect between 3 and 5% of the population, making it one of the most common phobias to be experienced. Culminating in panic and high levels of anxiety when exposed to high altitudes, it is reported that acrophobia is twice as likely to occur in the female population than male.

Unfortunately, an avoidant approach to dealing with this phobia will have an adverse effect on the quality of life. Yes, it might reduce that sense of fear, but it is causing sufferers to miss out on a range of experiences, and ultimately fuelling the phobia further.

What causes acrophobia?

So why is it that some people are afraid of heights, and others are not? To answer this, we need to take a look at acrophobia from an evolutionary perspective. A rational fear of heights is an advantageous trait which will keep us safe from a dangerous fall from a height. For example, children and infants are naturally cautious around heights, which suggests that there is an inbuilt mechanism which we are born with. Importantly, this is simply the common uneasiness that people can generally feel, not the phobia which some may experience.

Acrophobia is significantly more serious and can, in fact, be an unconsciously learned response to exposure to heights. Previous traumatic experiences, such as a fall during childhood, seeing someone else fall from a height, or experiencing a panic attack while in a high place can bring about a fear of heights. However, it is possible for the phobia to develop without a known cause, so environmental or genetic factors can play a part, such as a learned attitude from a parent. What is clear, is that once acrophobia has taken hold, it can bring about a range of symptoms and behaviours which can set sufferers apart from those who demonstrate the ‘evolutionary safety mechanism’ attitude towards heights.

What are some of the symptoms?

The most pronounced symptom of acrophobia is that intense sense of anxiety and panic towards exposure or the thought of heights. However, this will differ from person to person: some may be triggered in this way when it is extreme heights; others may fear any kind of height, such as steps, stools or ladders. Either way, this can lead to a variety of physical and psychological symptoms. 

When it comes to physical indicators, it is common for some people to use the term “vertigo” to describe their fear of heights. However, vertigo, or rather the unpleasant sensation of spinning, is really just one symptom of acrophobia. Other physical symptoms can include:

  • Shaking or trembling

  • Profuse sweating

  • Headaches 

  • Dizziness or loss of balance 

  • Feeling nauseous or lightheaded

  • Increased heart rate, chest pain or tightness

  • Panic attacks, including breathlessness

Meanwhile, the psychological symptoms which those with acrophobia can experience may be:

  • Fear of being trapped somewhere high up

  • Overthinking the possibility of being faced with heights in everyday life

  • Excessive worrying about encountering heights in specific situations, such as bridges or stairs

  • Feeling paralyzed when exposed to heights

Further to simply being at a height, recent studies are suggesting that it is possible for sufferers to feel these symptoms when faced with tall structures. In one such study, participants were asked to judge the height of a building when standing at ground level looking up, and when at the top of the building looking down. When compared with participants who had scored lowest on an acrophobia test, those who were most afraid of heights actually judged the building to be around 3 metres higher at ground level and a whopping 12 metres taller from the top. Therefore, for those suffering from acrophobia, they are more likely to overestimate the heights they are exposed to, which will then affect their response to those self-same heights.

So, do you feel like you might be harbouring a fear of heights? Does any of this resonate with you? Do you panic at the sight or thought of being at a great elevation? Perhaps you know of someone who might be acrophobic? No matter, the quality of life can be significantly improved with treatment. There are positive results being seen from exposure therapy utilising virtual reality, so taking control of acrophobia is easier than ever.

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