When Does Acrophobia Develop?

A woman looking over the side of a suspension bridge over a canyon
Image source: Isaac Viglione (via Unsplash)

Acrophobia is one of the most common phobias, affecting up to 1 in every 20 people. Despite its prevalence, however, it can be difficult to pinpoint what causes the condition. It’s for this reason that many people are unsure when acrophobia develops.

In this guide, we’ll look at the ages at which you may start to experience a fear of heights. We’ll also break down the possible reasons why acrophobia may develop at varying times for different people.

Why does a fear of heights develop?

Before we take a look at the stages of life at which acrophobia can start to manifest itself, it’s important to understand why this fear starts. Though there is still no definitive answer as to what causes a fear of heights, there are several theories that can help to explain when and why it arises in certain people.

The first potential cause is that acrophobia is learned behaviour. According to this theory, an individual’s fear is rooted in a specific traumatic event. For example, if a child falls from a climbing frame, they would likely feel afraid. If they internalise this negative experience, they may begin to link that fear with heights in general.

It is important to note that, according to this theory, the event that causes an individual’s fear does not necessarily need to have happened to them directly. They may have witnessed someone falling from a height, for example, or seen a scary incident on TV.

An alternative theory is that phobias are innate. This means that acrophobic behaviours are simply part of the way certain people’s brains work. There does not need to be a particular event that triggers their phobia; instead, they experience a fear response around heights even if they have never been in that situation before.

The logic behind this theory is that it is beneficial for humans to avoid certain situations that may be life-threatening. An individual who avoided heights may have been more likely to survive than one with a more risky approach. They are then more likely to pass on their genes to future generations. This may also explain why some animals present symptoms of acrophobia.

When is a fear of heights most likely to develop?

Two children holding hands on a cliff overlooking water, with the child on the left pointing at the horizon
Image source: Torsten Dederichs (via Unsplash)

Acrophobia is a specific phobia. This term means that it is a fear centred around a specific situation or object. These kinds of phobias are most likely to develop earlier in life. Estimates by the Mayo Clinic suggest that they typically appear by age 10, while the NHS notes they usually develop during childhood or adolescence. This contrasts with complex phobias, such as agoraphobia or social phobia, which generally develop in adults.

This time frame fits well with both of the major theories regarding the emergence of phobic behaviours. If acrophobia is genetic, it makes sense that it appears from a very early age.

Indeed, studies conducted using visual cliffs showed that infants experience a fear response when presented with a perceived drop. Though most are able to overcome this with time, in some cases, their fear remains present over the long term.

Meanwhile, if a fear of heights represents learned behaviour, then it may be that we experienced trauma at an early age—or, perhaps, that parents, guardians or those around us taught us to avoid heights, or punished us for going to high places.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of examples of people who have no fear of heights as children who go on to develop the condition later in life. In other people, meanwhile, symptoms can actually worsen over time.

Why would acrophobia develop later in life?

Though it is less common for a fear of heights to first emerge in adulthood, it is far from unheard of. In fact, according to a YouGov survey from 2014, a fear of heights is actually more common in the UK in older adults than in younger adults. That poll found that 49% of 18–24s were afraid of heights compared to 64% of over 60s. Meanwhile, 29% of over 60s stated that they were ‘very afraid’ of heights, while only 15% of 18–24s shared this opinion.

While this isn’t conclusive proof, it does suggest that plenty of people go on to develop a fear of heights in older age groups. So, why is this the case? It’s difficult to know for sure since acrophobia generally is not formally diagnosed. However, there are some possible explanations.

One potential reason relates to the ways in which our bodies age. Over time, our sense of balance starts to worsen due to changes within our ears. We can relate this to the way that our hearing tends to decline as we get older. If our balance isn’t what it used to be, it makes sense that we may be more likely to fear situations in which that ability is required. This can lead to acrophobia as we try to avoid dangerous heights from which we could fall.

It’s also possible that acrophobia can develop in conjunction with other forms of anxiety that we begin experiencing as adults. Studies have shown that many kinds of situational phobia can begin spontaneously, and also draw links between a fear of heights and more complex conditions such as agoraphobia.

Getting help for acrophobia

None of us has control over when our fear of heights starts to develop. We can, however, decide when to start conquering our phobias. If you’ve decided that now is the time to tackle your acrophobia, then the team at Climb Above Fear is here to help.

Our therapists specialise in assisting people experiencing symptoms associated with acrophobia. They can help you to talk through your fears and will determine the most appropriate kind of treatment for your needs.

If you’d like to take the first step to beating acrophobia, all you need to do is get in touch with us via our quick and simple contact form. We’ll help you to start living a life free from fear.