Acrophobia, the fear of heights
Anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack or severe anxiety when trying to go up a ladder, on a roller coaster, or while at the top of a building knows how scary it can feel. A surprising treatment for fear of heights has shown more promise in recent years. The use of virtual reality treatments was studied in the 90’s, but this treatment has been making a comeback lately. It has been successful in treating patients with other phobias and anxiety disorders like a fear of flying. D-cycloserine, a medication that is used to treat tuberculosis, has been known shown to help in very small doses for patients with post traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. A combination of therapy is usually the most effective method for treating anxiety disorders.
About Health states, “Unlike a specific phobia like aerophobia — fear of flying — and other specific phobias, acrophobia can cause a person to fear a variety of things related to being far from the ground.” Most people recognize a fear of heights as the definition of acrophobia. Some experts include vertigo when they define acrophobia, but not all sufferers experience dizziness with the fear of heights. The typical acrophobia definition includes an irrational fear of heights from any surface like a ladder or a rooftop. Acrophobia synonyms include a morbid fear of being high up or a high anxiety level concerning heights
According to Health Research Funding, “Between 2% and 5% of the entire population suffers from acrophobia, most of which are women.” Their acrophobia statistics also show that twice as many women suffer from acrophobia symptoms compared to men. This means that women are more likely to suffer from the extreme anxiety that prevents them from participating in normal activities like riding roller coasters and ferris wheels. Did you know that Six Flags in Georgia has an acrophobia ride? Sadly, it is called acrophobia, and many sufferers may not get a chance to take the plunge from several stories high on the famous ride.
How does acrophobia affect everyday life?
Acrophobia can cause any number of concerns for people. It causes people to avoid visiting friends living in high rise apartments. It can keep a person from travelling to a tropical destination for their honeymoon. It can even prevent someone from applying for a job because the applicant has to go to an office high in a skyscraper. There are many ways that this disorder can debilitate a person and interfere in their life.
What causes acrophobia?
Although the meaning of acrophobia is simple, the causes and treatments are not. Acrophobia causes are confusing because experts do not know if the fear comes from something in the evolutionary line of humans or if it is a learned trait. Some researchers have found that humans can become fearful of heights after they have suffered a fall or lived with parents who were afraid of heights themselves.
- dizziness (not always present)
- feeling faint
- accelerated heart rate
- weakness in the knees and legs
- fear of falling
- avoidance of heights
- feeling the need to flee when near high places
- inability to climb a ladder
- fear of roller coasters
- fear of dying from falling
- fear of passing out while going up
- fear of flying
- fear of riding clear elevators
- resorting to crawling on the hands and knees when fearful
- reaching for something to hold onto when climbing stairs or riding elevators
Acrophobia treatment follows the same types of treatment as other phobias and anxiety disorders. The use of desensitization, meditation, cognitive behavior therapy, medication or any combination of therapies can be helpful for those suffering from the disorder. Desensitization appears to be the preferred method of treatment, but other treatments are easily added if this method does not prove to be effective enough. Meditation, relaxation exercises, and breath counting are all great methods to help patients who suffer from extreme anxiety.
This type of therapy helps people suffering from a fear of heights by exposing them to their fear in small doses. Usually, this is conducted with a psychiatrist or a certified counselor present to help the patient when their anxiety levels get too high. Patients are encouraged to step onto glass elevators, and ride up one floor or they are asked to climb one rung on a ladder and see how long they can stand on it without getting too scared. It may sound simple, but these types of therapies help a sufferer learn to cope with their anxiety and to curb their fear through natural methods like controlling how many breaths they take in and out. This keeps the patient from hyperventilating and helps them cope with their anxiety instead of fleeing to avoid their fear.
Using meditation has been a helpful therapy for patient’s for all types of anxiety and panic disorders. Meditating helps an anxiety sufferer control their thoughts, their breathing, and their fears with visualization and relaxation techniques. Patients often visit with a mental health professional and are asked to close their eyes and visualize a peaceful setting. They are then instructed to concentrate on their breathing. The therapist can use this method to ask the patient to think about the subject of their fears and to control their breath by counting to five or ten while inhaling and exhaling. This helps the patient because they are in a safe setting and are only thinking about their fear instead of being exposed to their fear. This is usually performed before attempting desensitization.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a common therapy for any patient who suffers from anxiety or panic attacks. This type of therapy deals with talking about the subject of fear for the patient. A psychiatrist can help the patient discover what triggers their symptoms. Once the triggers are known, the patient is then instructed to visualize that they are not afraid of their fear. They are asked to rely on self-confidence knowing that they are stronger than their fear and can overcome it. This type of therapy helps a patient change their perception of fear and reduce anxiety in general.
Medications can consist of anti-anxiety medications like Xanax or Valium and anti-depressants like Lexapro or Effexor. These are helpful for patients who suffer panic attacks and anxiety. These medications are used in conjunction with CBT and any other therapies the psychiatrist feels the patient needs to cope with their fears. The goal is to help the patient alleviate their fear so they can live a normal quality of life. Patients may be on medication for a long period, of time or they can use it on an as-needed basis recommended by a psychiatrist. Therapy can last for a few sessions or years depending on the individual needs of the patient. Medication and therapy must be tailored to the person because every person has different levels of fear.
The use of a different type of therapy reported by the American Psychology Association (APA) called virtual therapy is showing some promise for patients who suffer from acrophobia and other anxiety disorders. This type of therapy involves patients attending a session with a psychiatrist and using a monitor with headphones and a computer to simulate heights. A person talks through their fears with the therapist and then purposely exposes themselves to this fear by using visual stimuli. The person sits through simulations of flying, going up an elevator, looking over a cliff or a rooftop, and climbing a ladder. In this session, the therapist can reassure the patient that they are safe and can handle their fear because it is not real.
A huge benefit to using visual therapy is the ability to control the patient’s fear by controlling the amount of time in the simulation and how far the simulation goes. For example, the APA noted that one doctor named Keith Saylor PhD., says that he can simulate plane takeoffs and landings with patients that are afraid of flying. These sessions he tells the APA can go slowly like taking several visits before actually taking off for a flight for his most anxious patients. It is hopeful that people with the fear of heights can use this method in a way that is customized to their level of fear for a unique treatment plan.
Treatment of acrophobia meaning medication, meditation, CBT, visual therapy, desensitization, or any combination should always be conducted by a licensed professional who has had a history of success with other patients. Specialized counselors who offer group therapy sessions are also qualified if they have been certified and had experience with acrophobia patients. Any person who thinks they may have this disorder should always ask a qualified professional like their family physician for help finding the right psychiatrist and treatments.