How to Climb a Ladder with a Fear of Heights

A pale blue ladder going up a yellow and blue wall
Image source: Vitaliy Grin via Unsplash

If you suffer with acrophobia, you’ll know that some of the most difficult aspects of dealing with your fear are also the most everyday. One common activity that you may struggle with is climbing a ladder. For those of us with a severe phobia of heights, ascending just a couple of rungs can be panic-inducing.

In this article, we’ll provide you with some advice on how to climb a ladder even if you have a fear of heights. We’ll also give some additional details on what you can do to overcome your phobia for good. Let’s dive in!

Why are ladders so scary?

If you have a fear of heights to any degree, it’s highly likely you’ll have some sort of aversion to ladders. However, you might not know that climbing a ladder is actually the second-most common trigger of visual height intolerance (vHI).

As opposed to acrophobia, which refers to an extreme phobia of heights, vHI encompasses a much broader range of discomfort relating to heights. One study in the Journal of Neurology found that vHI affects around 28% of the population. People with vHI feel like they will lose their balance or fall when in a high place. They may also feel fear and nausea, go weak at the knees and experience vertigo.

Given these facts, it’s not too surprising to learn that climbing a ladder can be so daunting. The physical and psychological symptoms of vHI team up to make the experience terrifying.

What causes a fear of heights on ladders?

A fear of heights on ladders can arise for several reasons. In some cases, it may be the result of a traumatic event in your past: perhaps you fell from a ladder or similar high place.

For many people, however, their fear is rooted in the way they think. Common thoughts that may cross your mind if you’re afraid of climbing a ladder could be:

  • “I’ll miss a rung when climbing back down and fall.”
  • “When I step onto the ladder, it could buckle.”
  • “The ladder might not be stable — if it falls over, I could end up stuck on the roof.”
  • “I’ll freeze when I get up there and won’t be able to move.”

Of course, it should go without saying that ladders do come with real risk. Slips and falls do happen, and ladders can be unstable. However, conditions like vHI and acrophobia cause your mind to overestimate the level of risk. This then leaves you in a vicious spiral: the more you think that you won’t be safe on a ladder, the more likely you are to feel shaky or unsteady, or even to experience a panic attack. This, in turn, worsens your fear.

Many people are content to simply avoid ladders altogether. However, for many of us, there will inevitably come a time when we’ll need to change a bulb or clean a gutter and wish we weren’t so afraid of climbing up there. Fortunately, there are steps that you can take to tackle your fear.

How can you climb a ladder without being afraid?

A wooden ladder on which a person is stood. Only the person's boots and the bottom of their jeans are visible
Image source: Anaya Katlego via Unsplash

Overcoming your fear of heights on ladders isn’t always easy. Knowing where to start can help you to begin your journey towards climbing with confidence. Below, we’ll talk about some steps you can take to make ascending those rungs a little easier.

Safety first

A lot of fear surrounding the use of ladders relates to their safety. However, many people aren’t even familiar with the basics of ladder safety. It’s easy to see why this is such a big problem: how can you reassure yourself that you’ll be safe if you don’t even know what safety looks like?

With this in mind, it’s wise to take some time out to learn about how to safely use a ladder. Here are some top tips:

  • Use the right type of ladder for the job. Be aware of how much your ladder can safely hold, taking into account both your own weight and any material or equipment you may be carrying. Consider height, too: when using an extension ladder, the top should be three feet above where you will be standing.
  • Make sure there are no faults with your ladder. Things to look out for include any loose fixtures, damage to the rungs, rails or non-slip feet, and the overall stability of the ladder.
  • Stick to the 1-to-4 rule. For every four metres of height, your ladder should be an extra one metre from the wall it’s leaning against. So, for example, if your ladder is six metres tall, it should be one and a half metres away from the wall.
  • Choose a safe place to set up your ladder. The surface you place your ladder on should be flat and stable. It also needs to maintain both your weight and the weight of the ladder, so choose sturdy ground. Avoid any slippery surfaces.
  • Secure your ladder. If you can, tie it up to avoid sideways movement—preferably at the top. And remember: just as the ground needs to be able to handle your ladder, the place it rests at the top needs to do the same.
  • Keep three points of contact at all times. This means either keeping two hands and one foot on the ladder, or two feet and one hand. This helps you to stay secure.
  • Climb with care. Take each step cautiously, especially when descending the ladder. Slow and steady is key!

For an extensive list of advice, visit the HSE’s guide to safe use of ladders and stepladders. We also recommend checking out this video from the Essential Craftsman YouTube channel:

Gradual exposure

Familiarising yourself with how to climb a ladder safely is only part of the battle. To begin to truly tackle your fear, you need to be able to start doing it for real.

One of the most effective techniques here is exposure therapy. As the name suggests, this is a technique used in psychotherapy which sees you expose yourself to the thing that causes you fear until it no longer provokes the same emotional response.

In the case of a fear of heights on ladders, you can literally take things step by step. To begin with, you might start off by standing on a stool or small stepladder, or on the bottom rungs of a larger ladder.

Start in as safe an environment as you are able and have someone on hand to be there standing at the foot of the ladder. When you reach a new rung, stay there for a short while. You can use relaxation techniques to calm your nerves in the moment.

As you grow in confidence, you can begin working your way up to higher rungs. This doesn’t all have to happen the first time you try things out! Exposure therapy can take a number of sessions before you feel ready to climb up to the middle or top of a larger ladder. Celebrate each win and give yourself time to adjust to your new comfort level before you push yourself further.

Conquering your fear of heights on ladders

We hope that the tips in this article help you to start overcoming your fear and climbing higher! If you find that a fear of heights is affecting your life in other ways, consider reaching out to our team for help. We work with a network of professional therapists who can help you to overcome your phobia of heights. All you need to do is contact us today, and we’ll be in touch ASAP.