Can You Treat a Fear of Heights with Medication?

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If your fear of heights has started to impact upon your life, then it’s time to take action. However, you might not be aware of the different kinds of treatment options available to you. For example, you might wonder whether it’s possible to treat your acrophobia with medication.

In this article, we’ll discuss the role medication can play in treating height phobias. We’ll also compare it to other common types of treatments, and examine whether medication can complement these alternatives. Finally, we’ll take a look at why getting help for your fear of heights is crucial.

Common treatments for acrophobia

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As with all phobias, acrophobia is considered an anxiety disorder. A variety of different treatments exist for these kinds of mental health problems, but the most common are forms of psychotherapy.

While the best treatment for acrophobia will vary from person to person, one method that has proved effective is exposure therapy. This involves gradually putting yourself in situations that trigger your fear, with the aim of proving to yourself that they are less scary and more manageable than you had believed.

Exposure therapy can either happen in real life (which is known as in vivo therapy) or in a virtual setting. If you choose the latter option, your therapist may use virtual reality headsets to enable you to experience ‘heights’ in a safe environment. This is sometimes employed as a first step before patients move onto in vivo therapy.

Alternatives to exposure therapy include cognitive behavioural therapy, which focuses on the relationships between your thoughts, feelings and actions. Unlike some other options, this is one type of acrophobia treatment that can be taken online. Less common treatments include hypnotherapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy (EMDR).

Looking beyond therapy, there are a range of self-help methods that can help you to manage your symptoms, including relaxation techniques and mindfulness. Another option, which we’ll discuss in the next section, is medication.

Treating a fear of heights with medication

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Before we dive into the types of medication used by acrophobia sufferers, it’s important to point out that none of these are a ‘cure’. Instead, they all focus on symptom management; in other words, they make it easier to cope with the physical and emotional impacts of your phobia.

Bodies such as the NHS and mental health charity Mind note that there are three main types of medication for specific phobias: beta blockers, antidepressants and tranquillisers.

  • Beta blockers may be prescribed to treat the physical symptoms of your phobia, such as a fast or irregular heartbeat or tremors. They won’t directly lessen your psychological symptoms. Side effects can include having trouble sleeping or stomach problems.
  • Antidepressants can help to reduce the anxiety that you feel as a result of your fear of heights. These come in a variety of forms, of which the most commonly prescribed are SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). Note that these medications can initially make your anxiety worse, and come with other side effects, including nausea, insomnia and headaches.
  • Tranquillisers are less common, as they only tend to be recommended to patients whose anxiety is severe—to the point where it is significantly affecting their everyday life. This class of medications is addictive, and so is prescribed in as low a dose as possible and only for short-term use.

Pros and cons of medication for acrophobia

Taking medication to treat your fear of heights comes with positives and negatives. On the plus side, it has the ability to ease the symptoms you experience as a result of your phobia. If this enables you to try out activities or put yourself in situations that you would otherwise have avoided, then this can be seen as a clear benefit.

Nonetheless, while medications can prevent you from experiencing certain symptoms for a period of time, they cannot permanently get rid of your phobia. Therapies such as exposure therapy are still considered by institutions such as the Mayo Clinic to be the best form of treatment for specific phobias.

Additionally, unlike talking therapies, medication comes with side-effects, which may range from mild to severe. Some types of medication may be addictive, and not all will be suitable for every individual. Speak to your GP first before taking any kind of drug to treat your fear of heights, and do not take anything that has not been prescribed to you.

Combining medication with other treatments

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As we’ve discussed, exposure therapy is considered to be the gold standard when it comes to treating acrophobia. However, a 2011 study suggests that there could be a role to play for medication after all.

The research, conducted by a team from the University of Basel, involved treating a group of 40 people with acrophobia with exposure therapy. However, half of this group were given cortisol tablets before each session, while the other half received a placebo.

Cortisol is a hormone that your body naturally produces to be able to deal with stress. It comes into play during the ‘fight or flight’ response, resulting in higher blood pressure and blood sugar, enabling you to take quick action.

It might surprise you to learn, then, that cortisol was used to help people to overcome their height phobia. However, an article in Science explains that this type of hormone can “[promote] the creation of new ‘safe’ memories but also [inhibit] fear memories”. The idea is that this will ‘extinguish’ the existing link between heights and fear.

The results were incredibly promising. Not only did the group that were given cortisol experience a reduced fear of heights during the exposure therapy sessions, but this positive effect was still present when the researchers followed up with the participants a month later.

Why treating acrophobia is so important

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If you’re reading this article, it’s a sign that you’re looking for ways to treat your acrophobia. While medication may not be the right solution, the fact that you’re looking for help is a hugely important first step.

Too many people let their phobia call the shots, preventing them from living life to the fullest. At Climb Above Fear, we believe it doesn’t have to be that way. We specialise in talking therapies, such as CBT, and work with a network of specialists from our sister site ManageMinds. Working together, we can help you to reshape your mindset and overcome your fears.

Want to learn more? Simply get in touch with us, or learn more about our acrophobia programme.