Does a Fear of Heights Go Away on Its Own?

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It’s all too common for people to feel embarrassed or ashamed about their fears, to the extent that they may be reluctant to discuss them with anyone else. People living with acrophobia, for example, may find that these feelings make it hard for them to seek the treatment they need. Instead, they may hope that their fear of heights will go away on its own.

In this article, we’ll discuss whether it’s realistic to hope for acrophobia to simply disappear, as well as offering some proactive options you can make use of to help tackle your fear of heights.

How does a fear of heights arise?

Knowing why a fear of heights appears in the first place is a key step to learning how to tackle it. It’s also central to understanding whether or not it can go away on its own.

The exact cause of acrophobia is not fully understood, and appears to vary from person to person. Researchers have theorised that there may be ‘four pathways to fear’. These fall into two broad categories: associative and non-associative.

When phobias arise because of an associative pathway, this means that the individual has learnt that fear. According to Rachman’s theory of fear acquisition, there are three ways by which this can take place:

  • The first is direct conditioning, and concerns an individual developing a phobia as a result of experiencing a traumatic event.
  • A second possibility is vicarious learning, whereby a person’s fear arises as a result of observing others.
  • Another pathway is via information or instruction. Here, an individual is told that something is dangerous and ends up fearing that thing.

As this theory goes, phobias are more likely to be intense and long-lasting if they are associated with direct conditioning. However, other studies contradict this. Poulton et al found that people with a fear of heights were actually less likely to have experienced a fall resulting in injury than those without.

This brings us back to our fourth pathway to fear: the non-associative route, which holds that phobias can emerge without a specific root cause. The idea here is that some fears arise not because we’ve learnt them, but instead because our brains innately understand that particular situation, environment or object to be dangerous. Genetics may play a role in why some of us develop this fear while others do not.

This explains the appearance of acrophobia amongst those with no history of falls: they instinctively fear heights, and thus avoid them without having to learn to do so.

Does acrophobia go away on its own?

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With a better understanding of how phobias can come into being, we can now approach the question of if—and how—they go away.

There are certain categories of fear that can disappear spontaneously, with the most notable examples being those that arise in childhood. Virtually all of us will be able to remember something we found terrifying when we were young, only to ‘grow out’ of it over time. So, could this be the case for a fear of heights?

Unfortunately, further research pours cold water on these hopes. Psychiatrist John Vanin categorises a fear of heights as a ‘natural environment’ phobia in his book Anxiety Disorders. He notes that this type of phobia has a typical onset age of childhood and early adulthood, going on to say that while “many childhood specific phobias disappear spontaneously”, this is less likely for “some phobias that develop in adolescence or early adulthood”.

So, while it can be tempting to hope that your phobia will simply disappear one day, the reality is that this is quite unlikely. If your fear of heights developed in adolescence or later, or began in childhood and persisted into adulthood, then it’s probable that it will stick with you unless and until you do something about it.

What treatments are available?

If you’ve realised that your fear of heights isn’t going away on its own, it’s time to take action. Making the decision to change your life is a really important step, but it can be daunting. After all, how do you go about treating your acrophobia?

Fortunately, there are several options available. The right one for you will depend on the severity of your fear, the impact it has on your day-to-day life, and your personal needs and preferences.

Treatments for a fear of heights include:

  • Various forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and hypnotherapy.
    • CBT works by prompting a patient to reframe their thoughts, a process which, in turn, can enable them to change how they feel about heights and related situations that trigger their fears.
    • Exposure therapy, which may take place in person or in virtual reality, and which consists of exposing a patient to the thing they fear so as to slowly encourage them to tolerate it.
    • Hypnotherapy, which unlocks a heightened state of focus in which the patient’s mind is more open to new suggestions, potentially providing improved results.
  • Medications, including beta blockers, benzodiazepines and antidepressants, which tackle the symptoms a person experiences as a result of their acrophobia, and which can be useful on a short-term basis. Further research by Smits et al also suggests that the drug D-cycloserine can prove effective in combination with CBT.
  • Self-management techniques that can help you to relax yourself and avoid panicking when confronted with heights. This can be particularly helpful for those whose fears are less severe.

Time to Climb Above Fear

Man with arms outstretched on mountain summit
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While the journey to beating your fear of heights won’t necessarily be an easy one, it will be richly rewarding. Overcoming acrophobia brings numerous benefits, with perhaps the most important being a feeling of true freedom.

The good news is that you don’t have to go through it all alone. Here at Climb Above Fear, we have a team of therapists who specialise in the treatment of phobias. They’ll help you to tackle your fear of heights and experience things you never thought you’d be able to.

If you’re ready to leave acrophobia behind, all you need to do is get in contact with us. We’ll match you to one of our experts, and help you decide upon a treatment that really works for you.