A fear of heights is one of the most common phobias out there. Despite its prevalence, a lot of people aren’t aware of the correct name for this condition, which is acrophobia.
In this article, Climb Above Fear walks you through the need-to-know facts about acrophobia. We’ll cover everything from symptoms to the most effective treatments. Let’s get started!
What is acrophobia?
Acrophobia is a specific phobia—a type of phobia centred around a particular object or scenario. Individuals with this condition have an intense fear of heights and anything related to being far away from the ground. As a result, there are a variety of scenarios which can cause anxiety for those with acrophobia. These may include:
- Standing near a cliff edge
- Being on a high floor of a tall building
- Climbing ladders or stairs
- Using a multi-storey car park
- Standing near balconies or bridges
- Thinking or talking about heights
You can see, then, that there are a myriad of ways in which acrophobia can affect a person’s daily life. Indeed, many people with a fear of heights find themselves missing out on important work and social opportunities due to their desire to avoid any situations that may trigger the phobia.
When does it start?
Like a lot of specific phobias, acrophobia tends to develop during childhood or adolescence. However, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to phobias, and some people may develop acrophobia later in life.
One of the most debilitating symptoms of acrophobia is the avoidant behaviours people adopt in order to shelter themselves from anything that could trigger their fears. For example, people with acrophobia may render themselves unable to travel abroad, visit people who live in flats, or explore new places. While these choices may protect them in the short term, it leads to a very restricted way of life in the long term.
When a person with acrophobia is forced to confront the object of their fear, it can trigger a range of physical and emotional symptoms. This is because their brain detects a threat and thus activates the fight or flight response.
In terms of emotions, facing a phobia can cause feelings of intense distress, anger and confusion. This produces physical responses from the body like shaking, sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing and even paralysis.
On a less extreme level, simply discussing heights or anticipating situations where heights may be involved can cause a person with acrophobia to experience anxiety and dread.
Finding the root cause(s) of a phobia can be very tricky. There are a number of factors that can contribute to a person developing irrational fears of something. That being said, psychologists agree that most phobias can be traced back to a traumatic event in childhood or early adolescence.
For example, a person with acrophobia may have seriously injured themselves by falling from a significant height when they were young. In some cases, individuals may not be aware of the traumatic experience that fuels their phobia because they have repressed it. Treatments like hypnotherapy aim to bring these memories to the surface so that they can be acknowledged and reframed in a more neutral light.
Other factors that may cause a phobia to develop are:
- Genetic: Certain phobias are considered to have a genetic component, as some people have a hereditary predisposition to be more anxious than the average person.
- Learned: Phobias can be learned through exposure to family members or friends who display extreme negative responses to certain stimuli.
- Evolutionary: While phobias are considered to be irrational, some can be tied to evolutionary responses that have not been unlearned. For example, when early man roamed the earth, they had to show caution when navigating terrain with sheer drops to avoid death. This is an important factor in the debate over whether animals have acrophobia.
Given the impact acrophobia can have on a person’s life, many people with a fear of heights do not require a formal diagnosis to confirm that they have it. It is fairly clear that acrophobia is present if heights cause you a lot of distress.
If acrophobia is having a noticeably negative impact on their life, some people may choose to go to their GP for help. In this case, health professionals will diagnose a fear as a phobia if symptoms have been present for a minimum of 6 months.
While there is no outright cure for acrophobia, most symptoms can be successfully managed through therapy. There are many different types of therapy to treat phobias and the most effective approach will vary from person to person.
We’ll explore 3 of the most common therapies used to address acrophobia below.
CBT stands for cognitive behavioural therapy. During a CBT session, the patient is taught to recognise the patterns of negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours that have a detrimental impact on their life. By understanding and then reframing the thought processes that ignite their phobia, the person is able to break these unhealthy cycles. After completing a course of CBT therapy, many people with acrophobia are able to face situations involving heights without immediately feeling triggered.
CBT can be conducted in-person, over the phone, or via online video conferencing.
A good option for patients who are unsure of the origin of their fear is hypnotherapy for acrophobia. During this type of therapy, the patient is guided into a relaxed, trance-like state where the content of their subconscious is more accessible. The therapist will then ask probing questions to reveal the root of the issue. While the patient is in a relaxed state, they are also more receptive to new suggestions. This means it is a fruitful environment in which to reprogramme the way heights are thought about and approached.
Hypnotherapy can take place in person, online or even via audiobooks and pre-recorded guided sessions.
This therapy involves a patient being gradually exposed to objects or scenarios that cause them to feel fear. While this is happening, they are given tools to cope with the negative thoughts and emotions that are being triggered. Over time, repeated exposure to stressors without any terrible consequences allows the patient to become desensitised to the subject of their phobia.
For example, a person with acrophobia may first be encouraged to look at images of tall buildings. In later sessions, they may work up to actually climbing to the top floor of a tall building.
Exposure therapy can be carried out in-person, online and using VR technology.
The outlook for people with acrophobia
While acrophobia can be a severe and life-altering condition, it does not have to be permanent. Help is available in a range of forms. In fact, with access to the right tools and resources, those with acrophobia can climb above their fear of heights and live happy, fulfilling lives.
The first step is to reach out for help. We know it isn’t easy, but once you do, Climb Above Fear can take care of the rest. Simply head to the homepage, fill out the consultation form, and we’ll put you in touch with an experienced therapist who can recommend the best treatment for you.
Don’t let acrophobia control your life—do something incredible for yourself today!