It can be normal to feel nervous and tense when high up. One study from 1960 showed that even human infants and young animals have an innate fear of falling. However, if you have acrophobia, you may find that any situation with heights causes you to feel panicked, scared, and helpless. If you struggle with visual height intolerance to the point that it makes life difficult, you may be experiencing a phobia, and there are ways to treat it to improve your health and well-being.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Phobia Of Heights?
If you have a fear of heights, it can be valuable to discern whether your fear is part of a phobia, which is one of several anxiety disorders found in the latest diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM V). It is one of the most common phobias, and includes a persistent fear of high places that can affect your everyday life.
Below are a few symptoms that are common in those with acrophobia, which may occur when you are confronted with a visual height:
- Rapid or shallow breathing
- Increased or irregular heart rate
- Anticipatory anxiety
- Fear of injury or death
- A “freeze” response
With this specific phobia, you may also experience panic attacks when you are at a certain height. Panic attacks may cause bodily sensations like light-headedness and rapid heartbeat, as well as a range of other physical and psychological symptoms that may accompany an anxiety disorder.
Acrophobia research has found that risk factors for developing acrophobia can include a tendency to dwell on negative outcomes, observing individuals in the family who have a fear of heights, or a traumatic experience in childhood.
Co-Occurring Conditions With Acrophobia
A few other phobias may co-occur with acrophobia. These can be treated alongside your fear of heights and can include the following:
- Aerophobia: Intense fear of being in the air or of flying
- Bathmophobia: Intense fear of slopes or stairs
- Climacophobia: Intense fear of getting down from a height or climbing
- Illyngophobia: Intense fear of feeling dizzy when at a great height (vertigo)
Experiencing the symptoms of these mental health conditions (previously known as mental disorders) can be difficult. Phobias in general can cause intense anxiety and panic attacks when confronted with the feared object, but in some cases, these feared objects can be avoided. In today’s world, it is more difficult to avoid high places, for example, you may have to work in a tall building or travel long distances to see your family.
How To Cope With Acrophobia
Having a phobia of heights can be common. Extreme fear of high places is often instinctive. It safeguards humans from harm and can stop you from getting into potentially dangerous or life-threatening situations, like falling off a cliff or stumbling off a bridge. However, if you’re experiencing a phobia, your fear may feel terrifying and paralyzing. You may cope with the fear in these cases through the following steps.
If you know you need to be in a situation requiring you to be at a certain height, take time to prepare yourself mentally. Take a few moments to close your eyes and visualize how safe the situation you’re putting yourself in is. Try to use your rational mind to tell yourself that you won’t fall or injure yourself. Allow these thoughts to become one with your subconscious so that when you start to feel agitated and frightened, you can call on them to help you stay calm and focused.
Take It Slowly
Rather than jumping straight into a worrisome situation, confront your fears at your own pace. Begin by setting initial goals, such as standing on a chair or moving a step closer to your balcony railing each day. Work at this gradually, and you may find that you slightly desensitize yourself to fear.
Remember To Breathe
When you feel anxious, you may struggle to breathe normally. Shallow or fast breathing can worsen anxiety, so ensure you get lots of oxygen into your brain by focusing on taking deep, regular breaths.
Don’t Be Too Hard On Yourself
If you’re experiencing a phobia, you’re not alone, and it can be normal to need time to overcome it. Phobias may not be overcome in a day. If you’ve panicked and fled from a challenging situation, try not to be critical of yourself. Be gentle, understanding, and kind to yourself, and take your time as you work through it.
If you have been living with symptoms of acrophobia for some time, you may feel that it is time to seek treatment for your height intolerance. There are a few solutions you can consider to treat acrophobia and begin reducing your symptoms, including the following.
Exposure And Response Therapy (ERP) Or Desensitization Therapy
It’s possible to become gradually desensitized to your phobia of heights, although this method can take many months or sometimes years to be effective. It can be challenging to be continuously exposed to heights, so some therapists use virtual reality to help you while you’re in the process of facing your fears. The American Psychiatric Association discusses that virtual reality treatment can be especially effective l because it can make it easier for the rational mind to understand that there is no danger while exposing the body to the sensation. Facing a visual cliff can be less stressful than standing on an actual cliff, and yet offer the same results.
Exposure therapy involves short periods of exposure to what you fear, which gradually increase in intensity. Each exposure is safe but can cause symptoms of phobia to occur. 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.
In therapy, your therapist may task you with height-related tasks such as climbing a steep flight of stairs and tracking your anxiety. Your therapist may also ask you to gradually increase the height while helping you reduce your fear levels. You may also work on relaxation techniques during therapy, such as deep breathing, mental visualizations, and muscle relaxation. Knowing the skills to help you control your emotions can aid you when encountering fearful situations.
Medications are often used in the treatment of phobias. Consult with your doctor before starting, changing, or stopping any medication.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a type of therapy that targets the underlying concerns that have led to your phobia. You may 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:
- Cognitive therapy: Cognitive therapy focuses on how negative thoughts add to your anxiety
- Behavior therapy: Behavior therapy focuses on how you react and behave in anxiety-triggering situations
CBT is often successful in treating a fear of heights. The therapy focuses on pinpointing unwanted images and thoughts associated with acrophobia. Your therapist works with you on replacing these with positive ones. You can then modify your fearful reaction, so it becomes a positive one.
As you explore your fear with the help of a therapist, complementary therapies can also be incorporated into your life to help you find a balance in your symptoms, including the following:
- Biofeedback: Biofeedback uses sensors to track physiological functions. For example, muscle tension, heart rate, and breathing may be tracked. You can then recognize your body’s anxiety responses and learn to control them via relaxation techniques.
- Hypnosis: Hypnosis is sometimes used to help people face their worries. It can help a client re-evaluate their fear and see the cause of the fear in a unique light.
- Relaxation Techniques: Relaxation techniques help you feel better emotionally when coping with a phobia. Visualizations, mindfulness meditation, controlled breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation are some techniques often taught in therapy.
Therapy is one of the most common treatment options for specific phobias like a fear of heights. However, therapy can benefit you even if you’re not experiencing a phobia and want to discuss your fears or anxiety with a professional. You do not have to have a diagnosis to see a therapist. In addition, if you face barriers to treatment, such as cost, availability, or other factors, you might benefit from online therapy.
Research shows that online treatments in clinical psychology are effective in helping clients diagnose acrophobia and overcome a fear of heights. One study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association-Psychiatry found that virtual cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) was a beneficial way for clients to confront acrophobia. This specific form of CBT involved exposing those afraid of heights to situations that mimicked fearful experiences via a virtual reality platform. Participants with this mental health condition reported fewer symptoms of acrophobia post-treatment, and researchers noted that the low cost of this mode of therapy made it a practical choice.
In addition, online therapy is a flexible and convenient modality. Without having to commute to and from an office, you can work on pinpointing the thoughts that trigger acrophobia and understanding how to better manage those situations from home. You can also book sessions around your schedule without a waiting list. If you’re interested in getting started, you can sign up with a platform like BetterHelp anytime.
Addressing a phobia can take time, but many phobias are treatable and manageable with support. By making positive lifestyle choices and receiving professional guidance, you can start to find relief from your symptoms. Consider reaching out to a licensed therapist for further guidance and support in this process.
Do People Get Over The Fear Of Heights?
Some people may get over their fear of heights with treatment. Exposure therapy is an evidence-based treatment for this phobia, and it may help people experience less fear surrounding situations involving heights.
Why Do People Have A Fear Of Heights?
Researchers don’t know why people have a fear of heights, but it may be related to the natural human fear of falling and getting injured. For some acrophobic individuals, their fear may stem from a negative experience related to heights.
What Does Being Afraid Of Heights Say About You?
Being afraid of heights doesn’t necessarily say anything about a person. A phobia isn’t a person’s fault, and there are treatments that may lead to significant improvement.
How Do You Treat Fear Of Heights?
Fear of heights is typically treated with talk therapy. One common type of therapy for acrophobia is exposure therapy, which typically entails gradual exposure to a feared situation until a person feels comfortable. This modality can also be conducted via virtual reality therapy. See the following systematic review and meta-analysis for more information on this type of therapy for acrophobia:
Also, while medication isn’t normally prescribed as a treatment for a phobia itself, a healthcare provider may prescribe a medication (such as beta blockers) to provide short-term relief from anxiety until therapy begins to help.
Is The Fear Of Heights Genetic Or Learned?
Researchers believe that genetics may play a role in phobias. However, some people may experience a fear of heights as a result of a earlier experience involving heights, including a panic attack in a high place. Other people may acquire a fear of heights in part as a result of having a parent or caregiver with this fear. According to the Cleveland Clinic, acrophobia is a common phobia that affects approximately 3% to 6% of the general population. More research may lead to a better understanding of why some people develop acrophobia or other phobias.
What Is The Fear Of Things Falling On You?
Someone with barophobia, the fear of gravity, may fear that things will fall on them.
Do I Have Acrophobia?
It may be difficult to determine on your own if you have acrophobia. There are specific criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) for diagnosing specific phobias like acrophobia. Acrophobia tends to be more than just an occasional fear of heights; it can cause extreme fear. According to the DSM-5, for a person to be diagnosed with a specific phobia, the “phobic object or situation almost always provokes immediate fear or anxiety.” Another criterion is that the “fear, anxiety, or avoidance causes clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
This intense fear of heights may lead people to avoid:
- Getting close to the edge of a balcony
- Standing on a glass floor
- Climbing a ladder
- Hiking on a slope
How Do You Test For Acrophobia?
A health care or mental health professional may diagnose acrophobia if a person meets enough of the criteria in the DSM-5. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the “main symptom of acrophobia is feeling intense anxiety and fear of heights.”
Why Does The Fear Of Heights Get Worse With Age?
A fear of heights doesn’t have to get worse with age. Therapy helps many people with their fear of heights. However, according to the Cleveland Clinic, only 10-25% of people with a specific phobia receive treatment. Instead, they may avoid situations that trigger their phobia, but this can affect their quality of life.
Why Are Children Afraid Of Heights?
Not all children experience a height phobia. However, specific phobias are more likely to begin during childhood. The psychological and physical symptoms may become more apparent in adolescence or adulthood. Professional help is available for children and adults who experience acrophobia.
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