Considered one of the most common phobias, where between 2% and 5% of people worldwide have a fear of heights, this irrational and persistent fear of heights is known as “acrophobia”. According to Dictionary.com, the word acrophobia is derived from the Greek word “ákron”, which means “peak or summit” and the word phobia, which means “fear”. With women twice as likely as men to develop this fear of heights, it can have dire effects on those that suffer from it and can disrupt their everyday lives making their ability to complete simple everyday tasks or visits to everyday places very difficult and burdensome. This article addresses the fear of heights, why people develop it, how to cope with it and overcome it.
|SEE ALSO: Most Common Phobias in Children and Teens|
The Irrational Fear of Heights
With 10% of the US population and 14% of the UK suffering from a fear of heights, people may find themselves so burdened by this phobia, where the simplest of tasks, such as climbing a ladder to change a light bulb, seem impossible to complete. Consequently, any form of high ground such as skyscrapers, ski-lifts, escalators, diving boards or roller coasters would send people suffering from acrophobia reeling and experiencing typical symptoms associated with an extreme fear of heights including dizziness, shaking, shortness of breath, hyperventilation and panic attacks. Nevertheless, there are different levels of acrophobia, where a person may be afraid of jumping off a diving board, yet feel safe on a plane, or jump off a diving board with no issues and be terrified of flying.
Negative thoughts people with a fear of heights have while on the edge of a high structure have include fearing that someone will push them off the edge, or them feeling they would be tempted to jump. People suffering from acrophobia also worry about having a heart attack and as a result, falling of the edge or that the structure they are on is weak and may collapse or crash.
Even those who never previously suffered from an irrational fear of heights may develop acrophobia as they grow older. The Daily Mail stated that the fear of heights worsens with age; as a person grows older, so does his or her association with being in a high place with falling, resulting in injury or death.
Several conditions are related to the fear of heights and they are bathmophobia, climacophobia and aerophobia. Bathmophobia is the fear of climbing slopes and stairs, whereas climacophobia, which is related to bathmophobia, is the fear of climbing anything high. Aerophobia is the fear of flying or riding on airplanes. Bathmophobia, climacophobia and aerophobia all work in tandem with acrophobia, since it is because of the fear of heights that the other phobias develop.
Often mistaken for vertigo, acrophobia produces the same symptoms as vertigo; however, each condition requires different types of treatment. Vertigo involves dizziness and imbalance related to the inner ear, where the inner ear is unable to balance itself.
Why Do People Develop a Fear of Heights?
According to Scientific American, fear is a natural survival instinct that keeps humans – and animals – alert to potential dangers and is referred to as the fight-or-flight response. However, for an abnormal fear to develop, this occurs due to a maladaptive response, where a combination of environmental and genetic factors may be in effect. Genetic factors contribute to people’s development of acrophobia at a rate of 25%-65%; nevertheless, scientists are still unsure as to which of the genetic factors promote the development of the fear of heights in people, and they suspect that no one specific gene is the cause, but a combination of genes are to blame.
Environmental factors, which may play a part in the development of phobias, include negative experiences related to the phobia – or traumatic experiences – especially those which a person feels are out of his control. Acrophobia, for example, may be brought about in an adult who fell off a ladder as a child, thus resulting in a fear of heights.
Consequently, negative thoughts associated with heights are used by the person’s subconscious mind to act as a defense mechanism, preventing whatever traumatic experience this person had from happening again.
On the other hand, some scientists believe that this fear of heights is a sign that humans are successfully adapting to this world, as heights can pose as a danger and result in serious injury or death.
Coping with and Overcoming an Extreme Fear of Heights
Having a fear of heights can hinder a person’s ability to live normally. Using escalators in a mall can be a terrifying experience for some people, while others would not be able to enjoy certain rides at the amusement park with their children. As a result, those struggling with a fear of heights with a very high level of difficulty, are recommended to attend different types and combinations of therapy sessions, combined with medication to help them cope with or overcome their acrophobia.
Cognitive- behavior therapy (CBT) sessions are used to help people with acrophobia cope with their fear of heights. These sessions focus on discovering and targeting the negative thoughts associated with heights and replacing them with positive thoughts.
Another type of therapy that can be used in the treatment of the fear of heights is neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). Similar to CBT, NLP also focuses on targeting the negative thoughts associated with heights; however, NLP searches for the root cause or experience that led to the negative thoughts associated with heights, thus creating a fear of heights.
A very successful kind of therapy for the fear of heights is system desensitization and exposure therapy. There are 2 types of exposure therapy: “flooding” and “graded exposure”. Flooding involves facing the fear of heights head-on, such as bungee-jumping or sky diving, thus eliminating the fear associated with heights. In gradual therapy, those with acrophobia are given tasks – also known as exposure in vivo – that gradually expose them to their fear of heights, such as climbing ladders. With each increased level of exposure (i.e. each step taken up the ladder), the therapists aim to decrease the level of fear. In turn, levels of fear are reduced via relaxation methods and breathing techniques, which reduce the possibility of panic attacks when faced with the fear of heights. Graded exposure is also administered via virtual reality, where those with acrophobia and put through simulations facing their fears rather than facing them in reality. This method was found to be as effective as exposure in vivo.
Therapists can also prescribe medication to compliment the therapy used by those with acrophobia. The most commonly used types of medication are anti-depressants and anti-anxiety pills. Recently, scientists have discovered that allowing those suffering from a fear of heights to ingest tablets containing the stress hormone “cortisol” reduced anxiety and thus reduced their fear of heights.
The Telegraph spoke of an experimental event, that took place in the Edinburgh International Climbing Arena, which combined NPL along with hypnosis. The NPL and hypnotherapy worked on finding the memories making up the root cause for the fear of heights. The mass therapy also included the use of emotional freedom technique (EFT), a “psychological form of acupuncture” which involves the tapping of certain parts of the body to get rid of the negative emotions.
Using a combination of modern medicine and psycho therapy, people with acrophobia can overcome their fear of heights, thus easing their lives as well as their ability to complete day-to-day tasks which are otherwise deemed very simple by others who do not suffer from acrophobia.
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