If the thought of standing on a cliff edge high above the ground makes your spine tingle, you’re not alone. A natural fear of heights is perfectly normal, and is often a great way of keeping out of danger. This is known as a fear of falling, and only really has an effect when there is a real danger of falling from a great height.
However, for those with an excessive fear of heights, also known as Acrophobia, the very thought of walking on a bridge can bring on intense anxiety. Derived from the Greek word for peak or edge – Akron – Acrophobia affects an estimated 2 – 5% of the population.
This space and motion discomfort phobia can have an enormous impact on the sufferer. From preventing social activities, to more extreme cases where Acrophobes have turned down jobs because the office was on a high level, Acrophobia can hold you back in life.
CAUSES OF ACROPHOBIA
There is much debate as to what causes Acrophobia, with numerous theories surrounding the condition.
Evolutionary psychologists suggest that many thousands of years ago, humans adapted to their surroundings, and soon learnt to stay away from dangerous heights. Indeed, research shows that many mammals are equipped with a fear of heights. Experiments with human toddlers have shown overwhelmingly that the participants were wary of approaching a glass floor with an apparent drop beneath it.
Other theories suggest that individuals with poor balance are more susceptible to developing Acrophobia. By relying too much on visual signals, heights become distorted and the sufferer is unable to process the information subconsciously. The resulting confusion leads to panic and anxiety.
Traditional explanations look to traumatic experiences in the Acrophobes past. Someone who has hurt themselves by falling from a height, may naturally grow to develop an intense fear of heights. The fear can also be learned from a parent who never allowed their child to face heights. This lack of real experience, as well as the danger associated with the warnings, can naturally lead a child to find heights terrifying.
SYMPTOMS OF ACROPHOBIA
Being wary of standing on the edge of a cliff is not a sign of Acrophobia, just a normal, healthy respect for heights – a fear of falling. On the other hand, curling up and getting as low to the ground as possible, while suffering an intense anxiety attack and feeling like you’re going to die, is a typical Acrophobic response.
An Acrophobe does not even need to be at a height to feel panicked. Even watching a movie or looking at a picture can invoke feelings of dread and terror. In extreme cases, sufferers are unable to walk up staircases without feeling anxious, and find the prospect of standing on a chair terrifying.
Typically, avoidance of heights is a sure sign of Acrophobia. Not visiting friends because they live on the 8th floor, for example. If heights must be encountered, sufferers will spend a large amount of time worrying about it prior to the event.
Nowadays, there are an increasing number of methods one can use to treat Acrophobia and overcome the fear of heights.
Exposure Therapy is a popular and effective form of treatment, whereby patients are first taught powerful relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises, muscle relaxation and mental visualization are used in conjunction with a gradual exposure to ever increasing heights. All exercises are carried out with trained professionals in a controlled environment.
Virtual Reality Therapy uses the same principles, but rather than exposing patients to real heights, they are immersed in a virtual reality. This increasingly popular treatment has fantastic results, and is used to treat a wide range of phobias and other mental illnesses.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapies, such as Hypnotherapy, Talk Therapy and Neuro-Linguistic Programming are used to replace negative ways of thinking with more positive thoughts. Coping techniques are taught, and gradually the negative ideas of heights will be replaced by more positive connotations.
In today’s digital world, there are even apps or audio therapy sessions such as subliminals you can download to help rid you of your phobia.
BENEFITS OF OVERCOMING FEAR OF HEIGHTS
An extreme fear of heights can prevent the sufferer from enjoying all that life, and the world around them, has to offer. By treating Acrophobia, numerous new experiences can be enjoyed, such as climbing mountains, enjoying theme park rides or simply visiting friends on the 8th floor.
There are huge practical benefits also. The anxiety that once plagued you as you thought about the set of stairs you had to climb for your next meeting will be gone. You can even change lightbulbs yourself, without having to ask the neighbour!
A life of fear is a life of stress and tension, which can soon spread to other areas of your life and lead to bigger problems. Overcoming your fear of heights puts you back in control, and opens countless doors.