Did you know that a high proportion of rock climbers are in fact scared of heights? Their phobia, known specifically as acrophobia, is one of the most common fears reported across the globe. There is one Dutch study which found that it affects as many as one in twenty people, meanwhile there are even more people suffering from a non-phobic fear of heights, meaning they don't meet the bar to be technically diagnosed but share symptoms with true acrophobes. All told, as much as twenty eight percent of the general population may have some height-induced fear. So, how can you overcome a fear of heights and rid yourself of the anxiety and stress when presented with ledges, bridges and other tall structures? To answer this, we first have to take a little look at the human brain.
Do you want to know more about acrophobia? Have a look at the Kate Maxwell's article on Acrophobia - A fear of heights . The article dives deeper into what acrophobia is, what symptoms to expect and some other pathways to managing the fear of heights.
There is evidence to suggest that a fear of heights is something which we may have inherited from our ancestors, many many generations back. Their automatic response to many of the dangers they faced was fight or flight, and hazardous heights was one such danger. So, from an evolutionary perspective, we have developed a fear of heights to protect us from the risk of being hurt, and therefore those who are fearful of heights may still be experiencing some of this conditioning. But what is actually causing this response?
Within our brains, there is a small, almond shaped portion which is called the amygdala. This is the response centre which prompts us to experience that fight or flight instinct. Most crucially, we are not able to directly control it’s activation. So, for those with a fear or phobia, it turns on when triggered and essentially prompts us to behave in a fearful way.
With the inability to control our amygdala, the method employed to overcome a fear of heights is to train to it. No, it isn’t like those Sudoku puzzles or GameBoy games which promise to keep us razor sharp, it is much more specific than that, and a great deal more purposeful.
Known as exposure therapy, it is the act of facing the fear one step at a time, with the goal of being increasingly comfortable with situations which may cause anxiety and fear to take over. It can be a varied approach: use of images, imagined scenarios creating a mental picture, discussions around the subject of heights, and even videos and physical engagement in places of height. And, with 21st century technology, virtual reality is being used more widely than ever within this field. Naturally, it would be an incremental approach also, repetitively facing similar situations to lessen the amygdala’s response. The process essentially desensitises the amygdala to the exposures, which may have previously prompted those with a fear of heights to feel the heightened sense of fear and anxiety.
Healthcare professionals are employing exposure therapy across a number of phobias, just like acrophobia, and the training of the amygdala’s response to the exposures is proving to be a positive management of common fears. All the while, the results are speaking for themselves.
In 2018, 100 volunteers who reported a fear of heights took part in a study at Oxford University. The control group maintained their reports of acrophobia throughout. However, the remaining 49 of them were given six virtual reality sessions of exposure therapy. Of those who had this therapy, 69% felt a significant reduction in the phobia and expressed that it is an avenue which they would actively seek out. The professor leading the study believes that utilising modern technology to combat phobias such as acrophobia is a huge leap forward in mental health provision. Not only is it more accessible, it is easier and often easier on the bank balance. What is clear is that beating a fear of heights by training our brain to respond a little less can go a long way to making us feel better.
Does any of the content sound familiar to you? Has it got you thinking you might have a fear of heights? Or do you already know you’re acrophobic? Reach out to the team at oVRcome for find out about the work they are doing to help those with this phobia, through VR exposure therapy, and stay tuned for updates on how to manage acrophobia through the upcoming app!