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What Can You Do If You Have a Fear of Heights?


It is surprisingly common for people of all ages to have a fear of heights.  This phobia is known as acrophobia.

When such a fear is experienced, it can also lead to anxiety and panic attacks.  It is said that some three to six percent of people suffer from acrophobia and it is even considered normal for many to feel nervous and tense when high up - with young children and animals having an innate fear of falling.

What are the symptoms of a fear of heights?

These are some of the common symptoms found in those with acrophobia when they are in a high place:

  • Dissociation 
  • Rapid or shallow breathing
  • Increased or irregular heart rate
  • Anticipatory anxiety 
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Fear of injury or death
  • Avoidance
  • A “freeze” response 

Panic attacks are also a possibility leading to light-headedness and a rapid heartbeat.  In addition, there can be a range of other physical and psychological symptoms.

There are other phobias which can occur at the same time as a fear of heights - and these include:

  • Aerophobia - an intense fear of being in the air or of flying
  • Bathmophobia - an intense fear of slopes or stairs
  • Climacophobia - an intense fear of getting down from a height or climbing
  • Illyngophobia - an intense fear of feeling dizzy when at a great height, also known as vertigo

Of course, there can be a fine line between having a fear of heights and just being instinctively wary of high places to safeguard you from harm, preventing falling off a cliff or a bridge.

How to cope with this phobia?

  • Being prepared.  If you know you will be in such a situation, take a few moments to close your eyes, rationalizing that you won't fall or injure yourself and allowing these thoughts to become one with your subconscious.
  • Taking it slowly.  Confront your fears at your own pace, working at this gradually and possibly desensitizing yourself to the fear.
  • Remembering to breathe.  Anxiety can mean you struggle to breathe normally, leading to worse anxiety.  Take lots of deep, regular breaths.

While acrophobia is similar to any specific phobia, the impact can be greater in those who live and work in big cities with tall buildings - or in industries that require travel. 

  • One way to help with acrophobia is to undergo exposure therapy (ERP) or desensitization therapy - which involves being exposed to what causes the phobia in a gradual and controlled way.  This form of therapy involves short periods of exposure to what you fear, which gradually increase in intensity.  While each exposure is safe, it can still cause symptoms of phobia to occur.  But as you choose to remain within your fear and continue to experience the fearful stimuli, it can train your mind that you are in control of the fear and able to stay safe, even when you feel afraid.
  • Another suggestion is relaxation therapy where the brain is re-trained to react calmly to those situations that would normally trigger the phobia.  The relaxation techniques practised include deep breathing, mental visualizations and muscle relaxation. Knowing the skills to help you control your emotions can aid you when encountering fearful situations.
  • Medication is often used in the treatment of phobias under medical supervision.  Of course, this is not without risks.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) targets the underlying concerns that have led to a phobia when you learn to understand your fears and worries to better equip yourself with the tools you need to overcome your phobia. The therapy involves two main aspects, namely cognitive therapy focussing on how negative thoughts add to anxiety and behaviour therapy focussing on your reactions to anxiety-triggering situations.
  • Complementary therapies.  These cane incorporated into your life with the help of a therapist to help you find a balance and include biofeedback, hypnosis and further relaxation techniques.




Why do people suffer from a fear of heights?

Genetics definitely is one reason for this fear with a parent often passing on such a fear to their child.  My own father had just such a fear and in fact when he lived in an apartment for a few years, he just could not bring himself to go out onto the balcony.  I inherited the same fear but to a lesser degree.

Now scientists have pinpointed where this fear of heights comes from.  In a paper published in JNeurosci, neuroscientists tried to understand how the brain processes 'the innate fear of heights' with their findings suggesting that the basolateral amygdala (BLA) is responsible for the way we experience the fear of heights.

This scientific paper drew its conclusions from studying mice that were placed in a platform about eight inches above the ground and their BLA examined.  The paper stated: 

A subpopulation of BLA neurons exhibits a selective response to height and contextual threats, but not to other fear-related sensory or anxiogenic stimuli.

The scientists went on to say that they discovered a discrete set of BLA neurons that responded to both high-place and fear context exposure, indicating a convergence in processing of dangerous/risky contextual information.

However, other scientists believe more research is needed on the subject before any definitive conclusions can be drawn.




Brain Facts: 'Researchers Pinpoint Fear of Heights in the Brain'

JNeurosci: 'Representation of Fear of Heights by Basolateral Amygdala Neurons'

New Scientist: 'We know now what happens in our brain to make us scared of heights'

Forbes: 'Acrophobia (Fear Of Heights): Symptoms And Treatment'