Are you afraid of heights? Do you panic when you realize you’re high off the ground? Do you dread the thought of attending a meeting on a high floor of an office building? Do you close your eyes when scenic car rides involve higher altitudes? Does simply standing on a ladder reinforce the knowledge that you’re scared of heights? You may have acrophobia, or fear of heights, an anxiety disorder affecting some 5% of the population.
The definition of acrophobia is, simply put, a phobia of heights. Those who suffer from acrophobia—the word comes from the Greek word for heights, which is “acron,” and the Greek word for fear, which is “phobos”—typically don’t enjoy outings to amusement parks if these involve Ferris wheels and roller coasters. Because of their phobia of heights, people with acrophobia may also be reluctant to stand on high hills and some can find it stressful to be on an escalator or a glass elevator. Individuals who are afraid of heights may even avoid driving over bridges as this can bring on dizziness. This phobia of heights can trigger unpleasant symptoms that result in persons with acrophobia avoiding the possibility of higher altitude situations altogether.
Unfortunately, this avoidance can interfere with quality of life. This is not great news for women, in whom acrophobia is twice as common as it is in men. You might delay performing home repairs because you fear climbing a ladder. You might experience debilitating stress over being assigned a hotel room on a high floor. You might even avoid patios or hiking mountain trails. Your acrophobia could be adversely affecting your lifestyle.
Symptoms of Acrophobia
Some people use the word “vertigo” when describing their fear of heights, but vertigo, or the unpleasant sensation of spinning, is really just one symptom of acrophobia. Other symptoms can include:
- Feeling the need to crawl on all fours, kneel, or descend immediately when you are high off the ground
- Feeling terrified or paralyzed
- Experiencing heart palpitations
- Crying or yelling
- A full-blown panic attack complete with breathlessness
- Headaches and dizziness when you are high off the ground
Causes of Acrophobia
A fear of heights may stem from our natural fear of falling and being injured. Dwelling on the pain that might be inflicted from a fall from a high place also could contribute to the development of acrophobia. It’s normal for people to have some reluctance about being in high places but for those with acrophobia, the fear is unrealistic and excessive. Acrophobia, like all phobias, appears to be a hyper-reaction of the normal fear response. Some experts believe that this may be a learned response to either a previous fall or to a parent’s nervous reaction to heights.
The good news is that with time and dedication, acrophobia can be overcome. One of the main treatments for acrophobia is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). With this form of therapy, behavioral techniques that expose the individual to the feared situation—in this case, heights and high places—are employed. These behavioral techniques may be used either gradually or rapidly, and the patient is taught how to stop the panicky reaction and how to regain control of her emotions. While actual exposure to heights is also a treatment for acrophobia, some research shows that virtual reality may prove just as effective.1 Virtual reality saves both money and time, though it is not readily available everywhere. Still, as the price of virtual reality equipment drops, this form of treatment may become easier to access with time.
As for medications, sometimes beta blockers or sedatives can be used for short-term relief as they can relieve panic and anxiety. The drug, D-cycloserine, has been studied since 2008 in clinical trials for anxiety disorder, and some research indicates that using D-cycloserine with CBT may yield better results than the drug or CBT on its own. However, since one meta-analysis that combined the results of many studies questioned this drug’s usefulness, it appears that more research is needed. 2
Learn all you can. Educate yourself about acrophobia and look into treatment options that can help you manage your fear of heights. Acrophobia is different from other phobias because if you have a panic attack while in a high place, you might make an unsafe move that actually could be dangerous. So be sure to get treatment for your acrophobia, especially if being in high places is a routine part of your life.
Relax! Relaxation techniques, including meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation, may help an individual to cope with both stress and anxiety. Getting regular exercise may also be helpful in treating your acrophobia.
Get support. Talk to your doctor about what medications and therapies might help you. If your doctor is unfamiliar with acrophobia, ask for a referral to a mental health professional who can help. Don’t be embarrassed about telling your friends and your family about your phobia of heights, and ask for their support as you get treatment for it. Remember, you’re not alone. Millions of Americans suffer from acrophobia, but it is very treatable. With help and support, you can start managing your phobia of heights and move on with your life.