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What is Acrophobia? Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment for a Fear of Heights

Have you ever struggled with a fear of heights? You’re not alone. Acrophobia is one of the most common phobias, and a fear of heights affects a majority of people to some degree. But if all the lightbulbs are out in your home and you can’t climb a ladder to change them, then your fear of heights is disrupting your life and has developed into an incapacitating phobia.


In this article, we’ll step towards understanding acrophobia, answering questions like “When does a fear become a phobia” and “How can you treat acrophobia”? You’ll learn what it feels like to experience a phobia, and how to recognize it in yourself. 


Many people have normalized their phobias through avoidant behavior and coping mechanisms: but coping isn’t thriving. Ready to overcome acrophobia? Read on.



What is Acrophobia? Acrophobia Defined


Acrophobia is a disproportionate and intense fear of heights, with the word acrophobia coming from the Greek akron for “summit” or “high place” (which also gives us acrobat) and phobia, from the Greek word phobos meaning fear.


The fear of heights is a common phobia: Around 8.6% of women and 4.1% of men will experience acrophobia in their lives [1].


Acrophobia is not simply a fear of heights: phobias are characterized by the intensity of fear, which is disproportionate to all potential danger or discomfort. One in three people experience a “visual height intolerance”, but only a small proportion of people who experience this will develop acrophobia.


Acrophobia is not the same thing as vertigo, which is the physical “spinning” sensation that can occur when looking down from a great height, or up at a tall building. While vertigo can often accompany a fear of heights, many people experience vertigo without any fear or anxiety response.


So how do you know if you’re simply scared of heights, like one-third of the population, or if you have acrophobia? Well, it all depends on the symptoms…


Symptoms of Acrophobia


Acrophobia is a type of anxiety disorder recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the fifth edition, the DSM-5, it outlines the criteria for diagnosis, stating:


  • Marked fear or anxiety about a specific object or situation. 

  • The fear or anxiety is out of proportion to the actual danger. 

  • The phobic object or situation is actively avoided or endured with intense fear or anxiety.

  • The fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.

  • The fear, anxiety, or avoidance is persistent, typically lasting for 6 months or more.


The symptoms of acrophobia can be both psychological, physical and behavioural.


Psychological symptoms of acrophobia:

  • Intense fear and anxiety.

  • Obsessing over worst-case scenarios.

  • Panic and a desire to escape.

  • Worrying about future situations involving heights.


Physical symptoms of acrophobia:

  • Elevated heartbeat or heart palpitations.

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded.

  • Feeling sick.

  • Sweating or overheating.

  • Difficulty catching your breath.


Behavioral symptoms of acrophobia:

  • Avoiding situations where you’ll be exposed to heights.

  • Avoiding conversations that relate to heights.

  • Avoiding social media or TV and movies that expose you to heights.


Crucially, these symptoms are all disproportionate to the danger that height can pose. We all know that heights can be dangerous: so whether it’s rock climbing, skydiving or simply cleaning your gutters, does acrophobia have its roots in a very natural reaction to danger?


What Causes Acrophobia?


In general, phobias come from a combination of places. Childhood trauma, exposure to parents’ fears and genetic factors can all come into play. An evolutionary pressure to avoid dangerous cliff faces has likely left an ingrained fear of heights in all of us, while triggering experiences from childhood can bring this natural fear to the forefront of the mind, and intensify it.


Acrophobia Treatment: How to Handle Your Fear of Heights


Acrophobia can feel all-consuming, forcing you to cancel rooftop restaurant plans or even avoid changing a lightbulb. But if your fear of heights sends you into a spin, there’s a clinically proven approach to treatment that can help you approach a ladder again.


Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT): CBT is a proven therapeutic approach  [2] for treating phobias such as the intense fear of heights. Through CBT, clients are taught to systematically restructure their thoughts, allowing them to challenge and eradicate irrational beliefs and unhelpful patterns. For example, acrophobia makes your mind fixate on the worst-case scenarios, such as a window breaking or a ladder collapsing. CBT helps you recognize the faulty logic behind these beliefs.


Exposure therapy: While CBT helps restructure your thoughts around heights, exposure therapy exposes you to the object of your fear in a gradual and controlled way, slowly stripping it of its power. 


oVRcome’s Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy: oVRcome combines CBT and virtual reality exposure therapy into a self-guided program allowing you take back control. Our clinical trials have shown that oVRcome is effective in reducing the severity of phobia symptoms [3] with long-lasting results. Even better: it’s affordable and you can try it out from the comfort and security of your own home.


Medication: Medication is sometimes prescribed for phobias, in the form of SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and benzodiazepines. These can help manage the symptoms of fear and anxiety, and allow you to “cope” with stressful undertakings such as clifftop walks or flights. However, medication doesn’t treat the root cause of your phobia, and shouldn’t be considered a replacement for other forms of treatment.


Wrapping Up


To some degree, everyone feels a fear of heights. Whether crossing a swaying suspension bridge or approaching the bungee jump, it’s natural for your knees to knock. Rock climbers, skydivers and skyscraper window cleaners have slowly built up a tolerance to these fearful scenarios, and you can too.


While a combined approach of CBT and exposure therapy — either therapist-led or self-guided through the oVRcome app can help you conquer your fear of heights, you may need some coping strategies in the meantime. Mindfulness practices, breathing techniques and learning your triggers can mitigate the fear and anxiety you feel around heights.


Explore these strategies to gain confidence going forward — and throw yourself into oVRcome’s gold-standard treatment program for acrophobia today.


References


1 Kapfhammer HP, Huppert D, Grill E, Fitz W, Brandt T. Visual height intolerance and acrophobia: clinical characteristics and comorbidity patterns. Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2015 Aug;265(5):375-85. doi: 10.1007/s00406-014-0548-y. Epub 2014 Sep 28. PMID: 25262317.


2 Priyamvada R, Kumari S, Prakash J, Chaudhury S. Cognitive behavioral therapy in the treatment of social phobia. Ind Psychiatry J. 2009 Jan;18(1):60-3. doi: 10.4103/0972-6748.57863. PMID: 21234166; PMCID: PMC3016703.


3 Lacey, C., Frampton, C., & Beaglehole, B. (2022). OVRcome – Self-guided virtual reality for specific phobias: A randomised controlled trial. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. https://doi.org/10.1177/00048674221110779

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