Whether you are an individual suffering from the fear of heights, or knows someone who does, this brief guide is written for you. Here we shall study the causes, symptoms and treatment options for the fear of heights, which is also known as acrophobia.
What is Acrophobia or the fear of heights?
Fear of heights or Acrophobia is a debilitating anxiety disorder that affects nearly 1 in every 20 adults. The word is derived from the Greek word “Acron” meaning heights and “phobos” meaning fear. Individuals having the fear of heights generally avoid tall buildings, Ferris wheels, roller coasters, skiing or even standing on high hills or balconies. Acrophobia generally affects the recreational activities one can enjoy. However, in some extreme cases, the phobia can affect one’s day to day life. For example: driving on bridges may trigger panic attacks or dizziness or individuals living or working in large cities might find it difficult to attend meetings on higher floors of a building or may experience dizziness in escalators, glass elevators, railings, and on staircases etc.
What are the symptoms of Acrophobia?
According to authors, Martin Antony and Karen Rowa’s book Overcoming Fear of Heights: How to Conquer Acrophobia and Live a Life without Limits, to be considered a phobia; the fear of heights must be excessive and unrealistic. Thus, the symptoms of the fear must be in excess of what the actual situation indicates or must cause significant impairment and distress in the individual.
Three main responses are generated by Acrophobia. These include anxiety, panic and fear. Depending on the situation, stimulus and individual reaction, one might experience muscle tension, headaches, panic attacks, palpitations, or dizziness. A full blown panic attack resulting from the fear of heights can cause breathlessness, loss of control, and even thoughts of dying.
Causes of fear of heights
Psychiatrists mainly blame negative thinking for Acrophobia. Negative thoughts include:
- If I stand on the ledge I will be tempted to jump or someone will push me over.
- I will lose my balance.
- The building structure is weak and will collapse, or the elevator car will crash.
- I will get dizzy or have a heart attack and fall.
Acrophobics tend to experience such thoughts quickly and automatically, so much so that they are often unaware of them. The fear also stems from the physical sensations associated with heights. The thoughts of pain arising from injuries and falls (which are often normal and rational) are taken to extreme levels in Acrophobic individuals.
Like in case of most fears and phobias, Acrophobia also stems from the unconscious mind that tries to create a protective mechanism. Emotional trauma in the past, such as a tragic event one associates with heights, or sometimes seen in fictional scenes in movies can be a catalyst for such phobias. The difference lies in how the phobia manifests in individuals: in some people, the fear of heights may be present all the time; in others it may be present only from direct stimulus.
Treatment for Acrophobia
A great deal of commitment is necessary to overcome the fear of heights. Individuals must show a strong dedication to overcome this fear. Sometimes, drugs can help the individual calm the mind and ease anxious thoughts. Hypnosis, positive thinking and meditation are a few other techniques that are known to help phobics overcome their fear of heights.
Systematic or Gradual desensitization is another recommended tool that can help one overcome Acrophobia. This technique makes use of cognitive behavior therapy where the patient is encouraged to face the triggers or stimulating situations that lead to thoughts of fear. The individuals are made to relax, imagine their fear components and then work in least fearful to most fearful situations. Nearly 75 % cases of Acrophobia are curable using such techniques. Virtual reality is also being tested and explored to understand Acrophobia and also as a possible tool for the treatment of fear of heights.