by Mike James
It’s natural to feel a little nervous when you find yourself peering down at the ground from an unnatural height. But for some, the fear of high places is so extreme that panic and vertigo set in at the mere thought of being anywhere other than ground level. We’re not talking a fear of bungee jumping here….that is quite a rational fear!
There are varying degrees of fear when it comes to heights. Some reluctantly manage experiences at height (such as flying, or a trip on the London Eye) but may take medication to help get through the ordeal, and literally can’t wait until the experience is over. Others are crippled by fear and won’t even attempt three flights of stairs for fear of looking over the banister, and some think nothing of driving 50 miles out of the way to avoid going over a bridge.
A fear of heights is a curious and irrational fear, but it’s a very real and frightening experience for those who experience it. We’ve put together a brief guide of height-related anxiety – what it is, recognising the symptoms, how you can help someone in an acute state of panic, and most importantly what you can do to try and get over your fear of heights. Read on for some interesting facts and tips.
Height related phobias
There are a number of height related phobias. Here are the main ones:
One of the most common phobias in the world, acrophobia (from the Greek words ἄκρον, ákron, meaning peak, summit, edge and φόβος, phóbos, “fear”) is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights. In the most extreme cases the person can only function at ground level.
Aeroacrophobia is a fear of open high places, such as at the top of a mountain, in a hot air balloon, or even being on an airplane.
Not to be confused with acrophobia, illyngophobia is a fear of spinning and dizziness. A person may not directly be fearful of heights, but fearful of getting dizzy due to the height.
This is an extreme fear of climbing or going down from a great height, especially stairs, slopes or ladders.
This is an extreme fear that can occur by simply seeing or observing stairs or slopes. The person may not even have to climb the height, but would get scared just by seeing it.
The symptoms of height-related anxiety
Symptoms vary from person to person, but can include:
- Air hunger (gasping for breath)
- Dizziness and a spinning sensation (vertigo)
- A general and irrational sense of panic
- A temporary loss of some bodily functions (numbness)
- Dropping to the knees, or clutching on to someone or something
- Racing heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Fear of dying
What causes a fear of heights?
There are two main causes attributed to an irrational fear of heights.
- Traumatic – a fear has developed following a traumatic incident involving a fall from a height or witnessing someone else get hurt as a result of falling from a high place.
- Genetic – all of us are born with an innate fear of heights – it’s an evolutionary necessity to keep us away from danger and to protect our species from extinction. It is said children are born with only 2 fears – a fear of falling and a fear of loud noises.
How to help someone in an acute state of panic
When someone is in an acute state of panic, there is no point trying to convince the person that the fear is without merit. They won’t be able to process the information rationally. The best approach is to empathise with the individual, and provide reassurance that they aren’t in danger and that you will help them get back to ground level. Here are some useful tips:
- Stay with the person
- Don’t let lots of people fuss over the individual in crisis
- Move the person to a quiet space way from the edge or to a place where the view to the ground is obscured
- Speak to the person in short sentences
- Don’t make assumptions about what the person needs
- Be as predictable and calm as possible
How to alleviate the fear of heights
Therapy can be extremely effective for phobias, including acrophobia. There are various types of therapy, and many look at reframing phobic thoughts. The most common approaches include:
- Talking therapy (Counselling)
- Neuro-Linguistic programming (NLP)
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)
Immersion therapy works by gradually exposing the person to the thing they fear. It is thought fear can be lessened by gradually desensitising the individual to the situation they are afraid of.
Start by slowly exposing yourself/the person to heights, perhaps start with a first floor balcony or looking over the banisters of a stair well close to the bottom. Continue by exposing yourself/the person to gradually increasing heights. When you feel ready perhaps try an experience day, such as a virtual experience… or if you are feeling brave, an Indoor skydiving experience, could be a good starting point.
Some people find it necessary to expose themselves to high places because of their job (working in a high-rise building, flying to conferences etc.), so manage anxiety levels when exposed to heights with medication. This isn’t a cure, but it can stop you/the person going into a full-blown panic attack. Medication should always be discussed with a professional medical practitioner, such as your consultant or GP.
Some people find complementary therapies to be extremely effective in helping to overcome phobias. Mindfulness courses, acupuncture, homeopathy, herbal medicines and even nutritional therapy are all alternative approaches to health that can be useful for improving wellbeing. Remember to always research practitioners and ensure they are fully trained. Contact the relevant body governing the complementary therapy you would like to try to find a suitable practitioner near to you.
How can Anxiety UK help?
If you would like support with a fear of heights, Anxiety UK provides access to reduced cost talking therapies including counselling, hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy. Take the first step to conquering your fear by becoming an AUK member and submitting a therapy application here https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/our-services/book-your-therapy-here/ today.
You can also download the AUK Fear of Heights fact sheet here https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/products/anxiety-condition/simple-phobias/fear-of-heights-acrophobia-fact-sheet-instant-download/
Mike James is a writer based in Brighton published in numerous online and print magazines. Working with Into the Blue, Mike is aiming to help others like himself who have suffered with an anxiety and fear of high places through challenging it head on.
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