Acrophobia: Fear of Heights
What Is Acrophobia?
Acrophobia (from the Greek: ákron, meaning “peak, summit, edge” and phóbos, “fear”) is a persistent and extreme or irrational morbid fear of heights. Depending on the phobia’s severity, an acrophobic person may equally fear being on a high floor of a building, climbing a ladder and any other activity that involves being at height. This is one of the most common phobias which cause an intense, irrational fear of objects or situations.
Acrophobia belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort that share both similar etiology and options for treatment. It is one of the most common phobias which cause an intense, irrational fear of objects or situations.
Acrophobia can be dangerous, as sufferers can experience a panic attack in a high place and become too agitated to get themselves down safely. It can also have a negative impact on your life, limiting career opportunities as well as affecting simple day-to-day situations such as helping your child out of a tree, making holiday choices or changing a light bulb.
Acrophobia and Vertigo
Acrophobia should not be confused with vertigo. “Vertigo” is often used (incorrectly) to describe a fear of heights, but it is more accurately a specific medical condition that causes spinning sensation that occurs when one is not actually spinning.
The fear caused by acrophobia can sometimes cause a similar feeling, but the two conditions are not the same. True vertigo can be triggered by almost any type of movement (e.g. standing up, sitting down, walking) or change in visual perspective (e.g. squatting down, walking up or down stairs, looking out of the window of a moving car or train). Vertigo is qualified as height vertigo when referring to dizziness triggered by heights.
If you experience a sensation of vertigo, it is important to see a doctor for tests. Medical tests may include bloodwork, CT scans and MRIs, which can rule out a variety of neurological conditions. Only a medical professional can determine the cause of vertigo.
Symptoms of Acrophobia
Most people may generally feel a bit apprehensive when looking down from a very steep cliff – this is considered a natural even appropriate feeling. However, when you experience panic attacks, rapid breathing, nausea and dizziness or vertigo when walking onto a balcony, going up a flight of stairs, standing on a ladder or driving over a bridge, your fear has now become an irrational obsession.
If you experience acrophobia, you may or may not experience vertigo symptoms. Instead, you may feel a sense of panic when at height. You may instinctively begin to search for something to cling to. You may find that you are unable to trust your own sense of balance. Common reactions include descending immediately, crawling on all fours and kneeling or otherwise lowering the body.
Emotionally and physically, the response to acrophobia is similar to the response to any other phobia. You may begin to shake, sweat, experience heart palpitations and even cry or yell out. You may feel terrified and paralyzed. It might become difficult to think.
Acrophobics are likely to dread future situations that may cause them to spend time at height. For example, they may worry that an upcoming vacation will put them into a hotel room on a high floor. They may put off home repairs for fear of using a ladder. They might avoid visiting friends’ homes if they have balconies or upstairs picture windows.
Causes of Acrophobia
Traditionally, acrophobia has been attributed, like other phobias, to conditioning or a traumatic experience involving heights. Recent studies have cast doubt on this explanation; fear of falling, along with fear of loud noises, is one of the most commonly suggested inborn or non-associative fears.
However more recent research shows that a certain amount of reluctance around heights is an instinct found in many mammals, including domestic animals and human beings. In 1960, famed research psychologists Gibson and Walk did a “Visual Cliff” experiment which showed human infants and toddlers, as well as other animals of various ages, to be reluctant in venturing onto a glass floor with a view of a few meters of apparent fall-space below it. The presence of the infant’s mother, encouragingly calling him, did not convince the babies that it was safe.
Therefore, acrophobia seems to be at least partially ingrained, possibly as an evolutionary survival mechanism. While an innate cautiousness around heights is helpful for survival, an extreme fear can interfere with the activities of everyday life, such as climbing up a flight of stairs or a ladder or even standing on a chair. Acrophobia, like all phobias, appears to be a hyper-reaction of the normal fear response. Many experts believe that this may be a learned response to either a previous fall or a parent’s nervous reaction to heights.
Treatment of Acrophobia
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a main treatment of choice for specific phobias. Behavioral techniques that expose the sufferer to the feared situation either gradually (systematic desensitization) or rapidly (flooding) are frequently used. In addition, the client is taught ways of stopping the panic reaction and regaining emotional control.
Traditionally, actual exposure to heights is the most common solution. However, there have been a number of promising research studies into using virtual reality as a treatment for acrophobia. Those studies performed since 2001 have shown that virtual reality may be just as effective. A major advantage of virtual reality treatment is the savings in both cost and time, as there is no need for “on-location” therapist accompaniment. More research will need to be conducted before this method becomes a readily available option, but if it is available it may be worth trying.
Acrophobia appears to be rooted in an evolutionary safety mechanism. Nonetheless, it represents an extreme variation on a normal caution, and can become quite life-limiting for sufferers. It can also be dangerous for those who experience a full panic reaction while at a significant height. Acrophobia can share certain symptoms with vertigo, a medical disorder with a variety of possible causes. For these reasons, if you experience the signs of acrophobia, it is extremely important to seek professional help as soon as possible.
Some herbal and homeopathic remedies are also said to offer effective relief for the symptoms associated with acrophobia without the risk of side effects. These remedies are a natural alternative that are safe and gentle to use within the body.
A combination of herbs such as Melissa officinalis (Lemon Balm), Lavandula augustifolia (Lavender) and Passiflora incarnata (Passion Flower) helps to soothe nerves and maintain a positive outlook. Carefully selected homeopathic ingredients such as Cocculus indicus, Lobelia inflata, Gelsemium and Bryonia alba can help to relieve dizziness, nausea, disorientation and sweating – often associated with panic attacks.