Acrophobia and Agoraphobia: What’s the Difference?

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There are hundreds of different named phobias, each referring to a unique fear. They span everything from the commonplace (arachnophobia: a fear of spiders) to the rare (chiclephobia: the fear of chewing gum). Two well-known phobias have names that can easily be confused for one another: acrophobia and agoraphobia. So, what’s the difference between the two?

Despite their similar monikers, acrophobia and agoraphobia describe distinct conditions. In this article, we’ll explain and contrast the two, as well as finding out if you can have both at the same time.

What is acrophobia?

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Acrophobia is a phobia of heights. It is classed as a specific phobia. Its symptoms are varied, affecting people in emotional and physical ways. These may include:

  • Distress and panic
  • Anger
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness and shortness of breath
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shaking and sweating
  • Nausea

In addition to the above, people with acrophobia may find themselves displaying avoidant behaviours. As the name suggests, this is where someone avoids doing certain things or going to certain places so as not to trigger their fear. In severe cases, this can become a life-limiting symptom.

You may associate a fear of heights with a variety of different situations: being at the top of a tall building, standing at the edge of a cliff, or taking part in ‘extreme’ sports such as rock climbing and via ferrata. However, everyday activities such as driving and even gaming can trigger acrophobic symptoms too.

A 2023 YouGov survey found that a fear of heights was the most common phobia in the UK. It’s so widespread that even groups of people you might expect not to experience acrophobia have the condition. Airplane pilots have reported having a fear of heights but not flying, and astronauts have described their experiences of acrophobia in space. Even other animals appear to have acrophobia!

Despite this, it’s not common for individuals to get a diagnosis for this phobia. Self-reporting for acrophobia is an option, with a variety of questionnaires available for those looking to determine if they have it.

What is agoraphobia?

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Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder which is sometimes termed a complex phobia. Though popularly thought of as a ‘fear of open spaces’, this does not fully capture the nature of the condition. The definition of agoraphobia according to the NHS is:

“a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult or that help wouldn’t be available if things go wrong.”

People with agoraphobia are likely to fear leaving their home. Symptoms may be heightened in a variety of public places, in crowds, or while using public transport. Open spaces such as shopping malls can trigger one’s fear, but so too can enclosed spaces, like elevators.

If you have this phobia, these kinds of situations may cause you to worry about things such as fainting, falling over, or being unable to find a toilet when you need to use one. You might also think that you’ll have a panic attack, particularly if you have previously had one in the same location or have panic disorder. Notably, the level of fear experienced by those with agoraphobia is out of proportion to the real level of risk.

Symptoms of agoraphobia can include rapid, shallow breathing, an increased heart rate, nausea, sweating, and having trouble breathing. It’s likely that you’ll avoid situations that arouse your anxiety, with some people unable to leave their home at all due to the condition. This can cause considerable issues across multiple parts of your life, affecting relationships and work as well as one’s own self-esteem.

Specific and complex phobias

It’s tempting to assume that all phobias affect us in similar ways. However, phobias can actually be divided into two differing types: specific and complex.

Specific phobias (also known as ‘simple phobias’) are fears concerning a specific situation or object. These include many common phobias, such as a fear of clowns, spiders, or, indeed, heights. You’ll generally start experiencing these kinds of phobias in youth; they may become more or less severe as you age.

Complex phobias, by contrast, can affect your life on a much larger scale. Their causes and triggers can be less easy to identify, and they can represent a more deeply rooted sense of fear and anxiety about a situation. The two main types of complex phobia are agoraphobia and social phobia.

Can you have both acrophobia and agoraphobia?

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Acrophobia and agoraphobia represent very different types of fear. Nonetheless, it is possible for an individual to experience both phobias at once. For example, you may worry that your acrophobia will trigger a panic attack when you’re in a high place and that you may be unable to get the help that you need. Indeed, a 1970 survey of people with agoraphobia found that 40% of respondents also had a fear of heights.

Some researchers even believe that there is a causal link between acrophobia and agoraphobia. In a 1997 article in Behaviour Research and Therapy, a team led by Graham Davey found that people with a fear of heights had “a tendency to interpret ambiguous bodily sensations as threatening, and […] to report bodily sensations of anxiety”. They argued that both phobias shared this in common, while people with other phobias did not experience the same symptoms.

Meanwhile, an article in Physical Therapy notes that people with agoraphobia “have been found to have an increased prevalence of vestibular or balance dysfunction”. This makes them more likely to experience discomfort and vertigo related to heights—a symptom which, though distinct from acrophobia, may contribute towards its development.

Acrophobia and agoraphobia: summary

We’ve now covered the key differences between acrophobia and agoraphobia. Acrophobia is a specific (or simple) phobia concerning a fear of heights. Agoraphobia, meanwhile, is a more complex condition whose causes are based on an anxiety about certain public spaces or scenarios.

Though the two conditions are not the same, both acrophobia and agoraphobia have the ability to seriously alter the way you live your life. That’s because they can cause you to avoid a variety of different situations, leading you to limit the activities you take part in and affecting the way you interact with others.

If you experience either of these two conditions and are finding that they are negatively impacting your life, it’s time to get help. You can learn more about our specialised six-week acrophobia programme simply by contacting us today. Alternatively, if you’re looking for therapy for any other topic, please visit our sister site, ManageMinds. We’ll help you to break free from fear.