Can a Fear of Heights Be Genetic?

People sat on a log overlooking mountains and a forest
Image source: Roberto Nickson (via Unsplash)

It can be difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of most mental health issues. A variety of factors can contribute, including our environment and learned behaviours. Another theory, meanwhile, indicates that our biological makeup can determine whether we are predisposed towards developing certain conditions—including phobias. So, can a fear of heights be genetic?

In this article, we’ll explore the role our genes may play in triggering the onset of acrophobia. We’ll also look at the extent to which biology can explain a fear of heights, and also examine whether nature or nurture is more likely to lead to this phobia.

Are people born with a fear of heights?

The root causes of any phobia can be difficult to ascertain. Acrophobia is no exception to this rule. The scientific community is generally divided into two camps: those who believe that we’re born with certain phobias, and those who believe that we learn them.

To begin with, we’ll take a look at the idea that a fear of heights is innate. The theory here is that we are born to fear certain situations or things before we ever come into contact with them. This is because our brains have evolved over time to recognise these stimuli as dangerous, prompting us to avoid them when we do come across them.

In the case of acrophobia, this theory makes a lot of sense. After all, there are certainly scenarios in which falling from a great height is a real risk that can even carry a threat to life. In previous generations, those who went out of their way to avoid such dangers would have been more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

We can therefore think of acrophobia as the human brain reacting too strongly to an otherwise rational fear. However, this doesn’t quite explain why some of us end up with an intense phobia while others are able to deal with heights quite easily. To understand this, we need to look more closely at possible genetic causes.

Genetic causes of acrophobia

A clear plastic model of a human head, including brightly coloured details, on a plinth in front of a glass wall
Image source: jesse orrico (via Unsplash)

Though the theory that acrophobia is caused by genetic factors is compelling, it needs to be backed up with evidence. How exactly can a fear become hardwired into our brains, and what causes some of us to be affected more strongly than others?


One possible explanation is that traumatic experiences cause permanent changes not only in our own brains, but in the physiology of future generations. Evidence of this comes from experiments conducted on mice, which indicate that fears can indeed be passed down from parents to children.

A team from Emory University exposed mice to the smell of acetophenone while giving them a mild electric shock. Later, they found that the offspring of these same mice were also more likely to be startled by the smell, even though they had never been exposed to it before.

While this shows that it is possible for trauma in one generation to lead to a fear response in the next, it may be trickier to explain why a fear of heights can be passed down in humans.


Trauma isn’t the only possible cause of a fear of heights. Another theory suggests that acrophobia can be passed on not because of what our ancestors experienced, but because of the different ways in which our brains work.

The idea here is that some of us have weaker balance control than others. This then leads those individuals to feel a particularly heightened sense of panic in high places, as they perceive themselves as likely to fall.

Additionally, studies have found that individuals with poorer visual perception of movement may have an increased chance of experiencing symptoms of acrophobia. This may be due to the key role our vision plays in spatial awareness.

A more complex link

Though the evidence is there to suggest a connection between acrophobia and genetics, it’s not as simple as identifying a single cause. Instead, the links between the two are varied, and a fear of heights may arise in different individuals for different reasons.

A team of researchers in Finland conducted a study on a group of individuals affected by acrophobia, and found that a “complex genetic architecture”, rather than a specific gene, was more likely to cause this predisposition. Meanwhile, the DNA analysis firm 23andMe claimed to have identified “392 genetic markers that were associated with being afraid of heights”.

What other causes could there be?

Though genetic factors can explain many people’s acrophobia, others may find this reason less compelling. Perhaps no one else in your family has the same symptoms, for example—or maybe your fear of heights developed at a later age.

This is where we can turn to the other approach towards explaining phobias: learned behaviour. Instead of a genetic predisposition, it’s possible that some people’s fear of heights is rooted in personal experience. They may have fallen from a high place, for example, or have witnessed or heard about a scary event.

In some cases, phobias can even begin with no obvious trigger. Instead, there may be a complex set of causes, both situational and genetic, that lead us to developing a fear of heights.

How can I get help?

Whether your fear of heights is ultimately genetic or not, you can get the help you need to live your life to the fullest.

Climb Above Fear specialises in helping people living with a fear of heights. Our team are experts in treating acrophobia using a variety of techniques, with both online and in-person therapy options available. If you’d like to take the first step towards overcoming your fears, then get in touch with us today.