We all know that getting through tough times is easier when you have someone by your side. This is certainly true when it comes to acrophobia. After all, acrophobia affects more than just the individual with a fear of heights—it has an impact on their relationships with others too. So, if you have a friend, partner or family member struggling with acrophobia, you may be wondering how you can support them.
The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to help someone who has acrophobia. There are also a few things you should avoid! Let Climb Above Fear guide you through the 6 key dos and don’ts for helping someone who has acrophobia.
How to tell if a loved one is suffering from acrophobia
What is acrophobia?
Acrophobia is the technical term given to a fear of heights. People with this phobia experience great distress when faced with a range of scenarios that involve being far from the ground. They may even feel discomfort at the mention or thought of heights.
What are the signs that someone has acrophobia?
In a lot of cases it will be fairly obvious that someone suffers from acrophobia. However, if you are concerned about a loved one but not quite sure if acrophobia is the culprit, here are some signs to look out for:
- They avoid scenarios that could involve dealing with heights (entering tall buildings, climbing stairs, sitting on balconies, taking escalators, walks in hilly areas, going abroad…etc).
- They turn off the TV, leave the room or refuse to watch when films, television shows or adverts depict heights or people falling.
- They display emotions like anger, fear or confusion when in situations involving heights.
- They experience symptoms including sweating, nausea, difficulty breathing or a need to sit down when faced with heights.
- They become agitated or shut down when you try to discuss heights.
The type of support you can provide a person with acrophobia may be emotional, practical, or both. Keep in mind that a lot of the time you will be helping them with the feelings of anxiety or depression that phobias bring about in people.
How to help someone experiencing acrophobia
1. Don’t lose your patience
While you might set out with the intentions of providing support, dealing with another person’s phobia can be frustrating at times. Even the most empathetic friend will never truly understand what it’s like to live with extreme fear, unless they have a phobia themselves. It’s easy to grow tired of a person’s avoidant behaviour or emotional outbursts when the thing triggering them seems so minor to you.
What you need to remember is that your demeanour will also have an impact on how the person is feeling. If you seem impatient, angry or even amused by what they are going through, you will make them feel much worse. It’s important that you stay calm and approachable—especially when they are anything but!
2. Do be a safe space
People with acrophobia are all too aware that their behaviours may seem silly or overdramatic to those around them. Indeed, many phobias are exacerbated by a fear of judgement from others. This means that your friend or family member with acrophobia is probably feeling slightly embarrassed and vulnerable. The best thing you can do, then, is take their feelings seriously and provide a safe space for them to share what they’re going through.
Not sure what to say to make them feel better? Start by listening. The more you understand about their situation (and everyone’s experience is unique) the more empathy you will gain. In time, you can help your loved one by boosting their self-esteem using tactics like pointing out their strengths and reminding them of times they overcame difficult situations.
3. Don’t be an enabler
The line between helping and enabling someone can be tricky to judge. Providing support for a person with acrophobia is a wonderful thing to do, but you don’t want that person to become too dependent on you. It’s important to establish boundaries. While you can help them through their fears, you cannot shelter them from ever having to face them. If you ever feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable about how the relationship is developing, take a step back and check in with yourself.
We recommend that, if possible, you share the responsibility with someone else. That is, do not make yourself the only source of support for your loved one with acrophobia. If other people are not available, there are various resources you can access for help with this (more on that later).
4. Do lessen the load
Emotional support is incredibly helpful, but there are also practical steps you can take to help a person with acrophobia. When they experience low periods that leave them unable to leave the house, pick up some shopping for them or bring them an activity to do. Just knowing that they have someone looking out for them in a meaningful way can encourage them to get through a rough patch. If you’re not sure what they might need, just ask!
In terms of addressing the phobia itself, you can offer to drive them to therapy appointments or accompany them to a support group. Maybe you happen to be with them when their fears are triggered. In this case, hold their hand (literally or figuratively), try to get them to focus on you rather than the trigger, perform breathing exercises and talk them through it.
5. Don’t pressure them to change
Managing a phobia is a gradual process. As much as you want your loved one to get better and start living life to the full, you can’t rush their recovery. If anything, this will make them feel pressured and could have the opposite effect of stalling their progress.
You can’t force them to do something they’re not ready for, but you can offer to stand by their side as they take incremental steps towards facing their fears. For example, you could help them to set small goals like climbing a set of stairs or standing on a balcony for a certain amount of time. When they complete a goal, provide lots of praise (without being patronising). If they back out or fail to accomplish a goal, reassure them that setbacks are normal and encourage them to give it another go when they feel ready.
6. Do encourage them to get help
As much as your support will be a great comfort to your loved one, at some point they should access professional help. Therapy is proven to be one of the most effective treatments for managing the symptoms of phobias. There are a range of different approaches available, so clients can decide which style best suits their needs.
For your part, you could do research on behalf of your loved one and pass on any useful information you find, including treatment services and relevant contact information. They may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of discussing their personal feelings with a stranger. If this is the case, you can offer to help them fill out any introductory paperwork. To confirm: you should only take this step with the consent of the individual experiencing acrophobia. (Refer to step 5 as to why!)
To get an idea of the information they’ll need to provide, take a look at Climb Above Fear’s contact form.
By following the 6 steps above, you can be a vital source of help and support for anyone dealing with acrophobia. Always remember, though, that it’s important for you to carve out time to take care of yourself too. After all, you can’t pour from an empty cup!