Can Acrophobia Cause Panic Attacks?

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A fear of heights (also known as acrophobia) can cause people to experience varying physical and emotional symptoms. Amongst these, panic attacks can be one of the most distressing. In this article, we’ll talk through the links between acrophobia and panic attacks, and provide tips on both avoiding them and managing them should they occur.

What is a panic attack?

According to mental health charity Mind, panic attacks are an exaggerated version of your body’s normal response to fear. They sometimes occur as a result of a particular trigger, but can also arise for no apparent reason.

Some people experience a panic attack only once in their lives. For others, though, it can become a common occurrence. People who regularly have panic attacks with no obvious cause may have a condition known as panic disorder. However, if your panic attacks always occur following a certain trigger, then a phobia could be the root cause.

The term ‘anxiety attack’ is sometimes used instead of ‘panic attack’. Both of these describe the same phenomenon. As such, if you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety attacks because of acrophobia, then all of the advice in this article will apply.

Common symptoms of a panic attack

Panic attacks typically last between 5 and 20 minutes. If you have one, you may experience a wide range of physical symptoms, including:

  • Hot flushes or chills
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Dizziness or feeling faint
  • Chest pain or a racing/pounding heartbeat
  • Feeling as though you are choking
  • A dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea, churning in your stomach, or feeling that you need to use the toilet
  • Numbness or tingling

Some people dissociate during a panic attack. This refers to a feeling that you are outside of your body, or that things around you aren’t real. You might also experience feelings of dread in which you worry that you are fainting, having a heart attack, or are even about to die.

Panic attacks can be frightening experiences, but they do not cause you physical harm. Nevertheless, it makes sense to understand what can trigger them and how to avoid them if possible.

Acrophobia and panic attacks

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Panic attacks are recognised as a common symptom of anxiety disorders, a category which encompasses phobias. If you have acrophobia, it’s therefore possible that your condition could cause you to experience panic attacks.

While some people have panic attacks without knowing the obvious cause, individuals with phobias are typically able to recognise the event or situation that leads to their symptoms occurring. Being in a high place or even thinking about heights, for example, may have the potential to trigger an attack.

As noted above, panic attacks cannot, in and of themselves, harm you. However, if you experience one whilst in a precarious situation—for example, while standing on a ladder—then you could put yourself in real danger.

In addition to being a symptom of acrophobia, panic attacks can sometimes be the root cause of a fear of heights. If you were, for example, to have a panic attack whilst in a high place, then you could associate this negative experience with heights more generally.

Not everyone with a fear of heights will experience panic attacks. To learn more about the physical and emotional ways in which this phobia can manifest itself, read our article on the symptoms of acrophobia.

What can I do if my fear of heights causes panic attacks?

If you regularly have panic attacks linked to acrophobia, or are worried that you may begin to experience them, then it’s smart to know what to do when they happen. In this section, we’ll walk through ways to lessen the severity of panic attacks and provide a pathway to preventing them.

Dealing with panic attacks when they happen

When you feel a panic attack coming on, it can feel as if you are losing control. However, you can take action to make the symptoms more bearable and to reduce the length of time for which you experience them.

One option recommended by organisations including Mind and the Cleveland Clinic is to focus on breathing. You could, for example, try the 4-7-8 technique, which involves breathing in for four seconds, holding it for seven seconds, and then breathing out for eight seconds. There are a variety of breathing techniques for acrophobia, so familiarise yourself in advance and choose one that works for you.

Mindfulness can also prove useful in combatting panic attacks. This involves a variety of actions that help keep you in the moment and avoid dissociation, such as paying attention to your body and to things around you. A related approach is grounding, which has a more explicit focus on guiding your thoughts away from unpleasant thoughts and feelings.

Once your symptoms come to an end, take some time for self-care. Experiencing a panic attack can be both physically and emotionally exhausting, and this can help you to recover and to regain calm. If you feel comfortable doing so, talking to a trusted person can help you process the experience and prepare should you have any further panic attacks.

Can you stave off a panic attack?

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Panic attacks often begin with little warning, and it can be difficult to predict what can trigger their onset. With this in mind, there is, unfortunately, no sure-fire way to completely prevent a panic attack from happening. Nevertheless, there are some useful techniques you can employ to reduce your risk. NHS Scotland suggests:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Avoiding alcohol, smoking and caffeine
  • Eating regular meals
  • Exercising regularly, especially aerobic exercise

Tackling the root cause

While the solutions we’ve discussed above can help you to manage your symptoms, the best solution is to act on the causes of your panic attacks. This means working to overcome acrophobia.

There are plenty of treatments available which have proven effective in reducing symptoms of acrophobia. One of the most powerful approaches is therapy.

There are a variety of therapeutic options to consider, including exposure therapy—which can either take place in person or using virtual reality—as well as CBT, EMDR and hypnotherapy. Some of these can even be carried out online, meaning that you can get help without leaving the comfort of your home. For more details, read our guide to the best treatments for acrophobia.

Overcome your fear

It’s clear that acrophobia has the potential to trigger panic attacks in a variety of situations. Though it isn’t always possible to prevent an attack entirely, the tips we’ve provided here—including breathing exercises, mindfulness and grounding techniques—can help you to ride out the storm.

We understand that panic attacks can prove extremely distressing, and you may feel reluctant to discuss it with others. However, sharing your experience can ensure that those around you are able to provide you with the support you need, and can even help you to uncover the reasons behind your symptoms.

If you’re hoping to leave your panic attacks behind, then the most effective option is to address the root cause: acrophobia. By turning to a professional therapist, you can gain tools and techniques that will help you to break down your existing thought patterns, reframe once-traumatic memories, and tackle your fear.

What’s more, getting help to beat acrophobia doesn’t just offer you the chance to prevent panic attacks. Surmounting your fear of heights could even give you a whole new lease of life.

Ready to conquer your phobia? Contact the Climb Above Fear team to discuss how we can help you. Our expert therapists can help you to take back control and start living free from fear.