A fear of heights is one of the world’s most common phobias, affecting roughly 1 in 15 of us. Many people are able to manage their fear, but for others, it can become a debilitating condition. If you find that this phobia is hindering your ability to live a normal life, then it’s time to start tackling it.
One popular form of therapy used to treat a variety of phobias and anxiety disorders is hypnotherapy. In this article, we’ll talk about how hypnotherapy works and examine the evidence to see if it could be effective in people with a fear of heights.
Phobia of heights: definition
In everyday speech, we often tend to use the words ‘fear’ and ‘phobia’ interchangeably. However, they have distinct meanings.
Fear is what happens when your body responds to a dangerous situation. If you have a phobia, however, you will experience fear even when there is little danger. It can also lead you to react disproportionately to the level of threat you are facing.
A phobia of heights is known as acrophobia. If you have this condition, it’s likely that you’ll experience a significant degree of fear and/or anxiety when faced with the prospect of being in a high place.
A range of other symptoms may also be present. Some of these may be physical, such as dizziness and a rapid heartbeat, while others may be mental, such as panic and a desire to escape.
The exact causes of acrophobia are not fully understood. In some individuals, it develops as a response to trauma. However, it’s also possible that there are genetic reasons behind the phobia.
No matter how it develops, it is not common for acrophobia to go away on its own. Some people are able to manage their condition, but others may go to such extreme lengths to avoid facing their fears that they are unable to lead a normal life. In such cases, therapeutic options such as hypnotherapy may be considered.
How does hypnotherapy work?
Hypnotherapy is a method used to help patients achieve greater relaxation and focus. To enable the individual to reach this state, which the Mayo Clinic has described as ‘trance-like’, verbal cues, imagery and repetition are used. It is possible for a person to do this alone, but in a professional setting, it is most common for a hypnotist to guide them.
It is thought hypnosis derives its effectiveness from its ability to help people to block out external distractions. This allows patients to visualise clear mental images and makes them receptive to suggestions. As such, it becomes easier to change your mindset and overcome entrenched habits.
Contrary to popular belief, hypnotherapy does not give someone else control over your mind. If you do not want to be hypnotised, you cannot be forced to do so; similarly, you can come out of the hypnotic state at any point.
Your hypnotist will instead provide you with guidance during your session. They will first induce you into the hypnotic state—typically by leading you through breathing exercises and by counting down. After you complete this step, they will suggest ways in which you could achieve your goals, or ask you to picture yourself doing so. Finally, they will help you to emerge from hypnosis, often using techniques that are the reverse of those that helped you to enter the state.
Hypnotherapy for a fear of heights
Hypnotherapy is used to treat a number of different mental health conditions, including anxiety, stress and PTSD. It’s also commonly used to tackle phobias.
The rationale for using hypnotherapy is its ability to help people reshape their thinking. According to mental health charity Mind, it is possible to use this form of therapy to access subconscious beliefs, thoughts and memories.
Because hypnosis enables patients to access these parts of one’s mind, it also makes it possible for them to change their behaviour.
Hypnotherapy may also involve asking the patient to visualise their fears. It may sound counterintuitive, but this process can actually help people to realise that the object of their phobia is less dangerous or awful than they fear it to be. This type of hypnosis bears some similarities to exposure therapy.
How effective is hypnotherapy at treating acrophobia?
Thus far, we’ve discussed how hypnosis can be a useful technique for tackling phobias more generally. However, we haven’t yet homed in on whether hypnotherapy can help those with a fear of heights.
To date, there have been limited studies into the use of hypnosis in patients with acrophobia. As a result, it’s difficult to say at this stage whether it would prove an effective option for most patients.
There was some limited evidence for the positive impact of hypnotherapy in a 2022 study. This used the parts therapy approach in the treatment of patients with various phobias. However, there were only seven participants in this study, and only one was acrophobic.
What is parts therapy?
Parts therapy works by recognising the different parts of an individual’s personality. It aims to resolve internal conflict by ‘giving voice’ to each of these parts. One technique used is to ask the participant to imagine a dialogue between their ‘younger’ and ‘older, wiser’ selves. They are then led to challenge why they are letting their childhood selves dictate their lives rather than listening to their own experience.
On a more anecdotal level, a team writing for the Metro online newspaper tried hypnotherapy to tackle several phobias, including acrophobia. One writer reported feeling ‘a lot more confident’ about experiencing heights, while another said that they no longer felt vertigo on tall staircases and when standing on chairs.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that there is little in the way of proper research specifically into the effectiveness of hypnosis for acrophobia. With this in mind, you may wish to consider an alternative treatment. Fortunately, there are several other therapies available which have proven effective at treating this phobia.
Hypnotherapy for acrophobia: self-help
While hypnotherapy is most commonly carried out with guidance from a professional, it is possible to use self-help resources to supplement your sessions. This may include podcasts or videos which gradually help you enter hypnosis, provide suggestions, and then bring you back to your normal state. Check out the video below for one example of how self-help hypnotherapy can work.
Other treatments for acrophobia
If you’ve come to the conclusion that hypnotherapy isn’t right for you, or simply wish to explore the full range of options, then you’ll be pleased to learn that there are many available forms of treatment for acrophobia. You may wish to consider these therapeutic techniques:
- Exposure therapy involves encouraging patients to face their fears and relearn their attitude towards the object of their phobia. A person with acrophobia, for example, may be asked to climb to a certain height, gradually increasing this over time.
- Virtual reality exposure therapy works in much the same way, but is conducted using VR headsets rather than in person. This offers a greater level of control, but may not be as immersive. The patient’s experience will be similar to playing a virtual reality video game.
- Cognitive behavioural therapy is a form of talking therapy that enables patients to deal with their phobia in a practical way. It revolves around breaking existing thought patterns and learning useful strategies that make it possible to face one’s fears.
- Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing therapy involves providing patients with stimulation while asking them to recount traumatic memories. This helps them to relive these moments without experiencing the same symptoms.
If you’d like to learn more about each of these therapies, as well as alternatives such as self-management and medication, then read our guide to the best treatments for acrophobia.
Time to get help?
If acrophobia is preventing you from living a normal life, then professional help could be the right option for you. Whether you’re interested in hypnotherapy or one of the other therapeutic techniques listed above, Climb Above Fear can help. We work with therapists that are registered with some of the UK’s leading professional bodies, so you can rest assured that you’re in good hands. To start the journey to breaking the cycle of fear, get in touch with us today.