How To Conquer Fear Of Heights (Acrophobia)

If the idea of having that first date at the top of a high building is more terrifying than the date itself, then keep on reading. 


One of the more common phobias seeping around the globe, with around 5% of people experiencing it around the globe, acrophobia (pronounced ag-uh-ruh-foe-be-uh) is an excessive fear of heights. Grouped as a 'specific phobia', it induces great fear and anxiety, where the fear of heights is overly excessive in relation to the present situation.


As an example, it is a normal bodily reaction to experience a sudden nervousness when you are at the top of the Eiffel Tower looking down on the streets below, after all, we are out of our comfort zone and our body reacts accordingly.


But, if you suffer from acrophobia then you might freeze up with intense anxiety drowning your body, creating a sudden panic that overwhelms the rest of the experience. Thereafter, the thought of the Eiffel tower might completely cripple you with panic, and even seeing a photo of the Eifel tower would prompt distress.


How Can You Cure Acrophobia?


The good news is that there are effective ways to conquer a fear of heights. Treatment options range from one on one sessions with a therapist to newer options such as virtual reality applications, which are becoming a popular and effective choice that you can practice in your home, and have proven results.

how to conquer fear of heights

So, let's take a dive into the reasons why it occurs, and how to overcome the fear of heights.


What Age Do We Develop Acrophobia

From as early as 7-9 months old awareness of heights can develop. This is an innate development shown in infants as a protection mechanism, to prevent them from dangerous situations, such as falling out of their highchairs, off the couch, etc (1).


Phobias can grow during childhood, although it is common that as we naturally grow out of fears at this stage, rather than develop them. However, sometimes they can carry over into adulthood and worsen over time.


The majority of phobias are developed between the ages of 15-20, so this is the age range where you are most at risk of growing fear of heights (2).


Although most fears will diminish as you get older due to the decreases in adrenaline required for the flight or fight response, a fear of heights can also develop in life, which can be attributed to a fear of falling over and making us feel the need to keep out feet firmly planted on the floor. 


Symptoms of Acrophobia

Symptoms of acrophobia are commonly associated with the typical symptoms of anxiety, including:


Physical symptoms include:

  • Tightness in the chest area
  • A dry mouth
  • Raised heartbeat, or heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath, or hyperventilation
  • Numbness/tingles in the hands and feet
  • Shaking with the thought of heights
  • Feeling a rush of anxiety accompanied with dizziness or a loss of balance when looking down from a high place. Maybe you feel this when watching a film and somebody is high up and the anxiety rush happens. 
  • vertigo fear of heights

    Action symptoms include:

  • Avoiding heights at all costs
  • Whenever heights are mentioned you move onto another topic or away from the conversation
  • Continuous thoughts about being in high places, which can impact your sleep
  • Fantasizing about situations where you could be in a high up place, or anything that could lead you to a high place
  • Avoiding height as a topic of conversation
  • Avoiding any scenario where you will need to be high up (calling in sick if you have a meeting in a high building)
  • Thoughts of being trapped high somewhere, such as an elevator
  • fear of edges not heights

    How To Treat Acrophobia

    One method of treatment may work for one person and not for another. Fortunately, there are different methods making treating acrophobia a highly viable option.


    Exposure Therapy

    One of the most effective treatments for specific phobias such as acrophobia, exposure therapy is a behavioral approach to curing acrophobia, which involves working with a professional who will expose you scenarios that evoke your anxiety (3). For example, you might watch a video of people balancing themselves at the edge of tall buildings, or climbing a tall mountain, with the drop very much exposed.


    The aim of the therapy is to enter the situation and to evoke the fear attached to it, to 'face your fears, and by working with the therapist to overcome the feelings attached to them.


    There are different variants of exposure therapy, and depending on the case at hand it can either start with a mild situation leading to greater fear-provoking scenarios or on the flip side, you will be thrown into the deep end for an intensive recollection and treatment of the feelings you experience (implosion therapy).


    Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) (Since 1995)

    The use or VR for treating acrophobia and conquer fear of heights allows you to experience a simulated environment, safely exposing you to what you are afraid of.


    One study of VRET took 2 groups, with one using a 4-hour simulated height training app VS a controlled group that did not use the VR treatment.

    virtual reality exposure therapy to overcome fear of heights

    Both groups were then tested by ascending the tower to a height they could cope with. The results found that those who completed the app training could ascend higher than the controlled group without training. The positive result of the training proved comparable to exposure therapy.


    This research indicates that therapy at home is now possible and apps can 'greatly improve the behavior and subjective state of well-being in height situations' (4).


    Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

    CBT is a behavioral therapy that involves working with a therapist to try and rewire the brain's thought process when you are triggered, and the chain of  negative emotions attached. Once you have identified the negative thought process you can unlearn and replace it, in effect rewiring the brain. It is usually 1 on 1 therapy and performed in a secure setting.


    Natural Remedies For Fear Of Heights 

    Like anything we want to work on, if you feel the need to take things into your own hands then you must have the power ready to tackle it head on. There are natural practices that can greatly help you to come to terms with your fear of heights. The cliché 'facing your fears' may be overused, but in this case, it is exactly what you will be doing to help cure yourself.


    Practice relaxation techniques

    The symptoms of anxiety are related to a fear of heights. Therefore, relaxation techniques can counter these symptoms and help you to regain control.

    Meditation and deep breathing exercises will progressively relax the muscles and have all been shown to reduce levels of stress hormone and improve concentration, mood, and quality of sleep. This will help to improve your confidence levels and overall wellbeing, and to help build a strong foundation within yourself to be able to combat acrophobia.

    Visualization  

    Firstly, practice some deep breathing exercises or have a soothing drink to get you into the right mental state. Then, close your eyes and visualize yourself in the feared scenario, allowing whatever feelings to come over you, and then use the rational side of you to remind you that you will not fall, or harm yourself, and to overcome the situation.

    visualization to conquer fear of heights

    It is a good idea to try this before bed for 10 minutes. Depending on how good you are at visualizing and allowing yourself to fall into the situation and evoke the emotions attached, this might be able to help you overcome them when faced with the situation in reality.


    Avoid Caffeine and Sugary Drinks  

    Caffeine is a stimulant and can enhance the symptoms that influence a panic attack. Whatever level your anxiety usually reaches, caffeine can push you to the next, which you really want to avoid. The half-life of caffeine is around 6 hours and can take 10 or more hours to clear from your system. Just avoid it on days you suffer from anxiety.


    Sugar is another thing to avoid on days where you could be triggered, as this causes your blood sugar to jump up and down, and when it crashes your body will release adrenaline, serving unstable moods which can leave you shaking and in a horrible state.

    Switch these out for decaf drinks or something soothing such as a chamomile tea, which will soothe the body and help it to relax. It is also excellent before bed and can help to ease your fears and have a great night's sleep.


    How to Overcome Fear of Heights Climbing

    A practice climbing wall is one way to start to overcome your fear of heights. You are afraid of falling, yet know that you are completely safe if you do as you are securely attached to a safety harness. So, you can take some practice falls from a low height and let yourself hang in mid-air, gradually raise the level of the fall. This will get you feeling safe with the harness and slowly but surely allow you to free yourself from the fear of falling.

    You can take advice from your climbing community as I'm sure that they will have experienced this to some degree and can give practical advice to overcome your fear of heights climbing.


    Hiking

    Some tips to overcome the fear of hiking include securing the environment around you, to give you the confidence that you are supported. You can also buy high-quality hiking gear that gives you the confidence to know it will keep you protected. If there are sections where you feel more comfortable on your hands and knees, then do it as this could be the difference between calming yourself and heightening your anxiety at an important moment.

    By hiking in groups you can make your fears well known so the people around you can give you advice and support you through it. Finally, try to not look down, as this can heighten your sense of fear. You can focus your vision on a fixed point in the distance which may help with this.

    If you have a great fear of heights, then select your destination carefully, and avoid places with heights until you have worked on overcoming this fear through the help of a medical professional.


    Climbing a Ladder

    If your fear of heights is because the ladder could become unstable, leading you to fall off, then you can get someone to support the bottom of the ladder while you climb up it, as this can take that feeling away. Keep your center of gravity inwards and take it slowly and methodically.

    If you have a more serious fear, then you can practice stepping on the bottom rung, and then slowly working your way up, stopping in between to regain composure.

    Another sensible thing to do it to take a ladder safety training course so you gain an understanding of all techniques needed to use a ladder. This can give you a deep sense of understanding and therefore aid in the confidence in using a ladder.


    Other Activities

    You may want to gradually cure your fear of heights by standing a few stories high up a building, before undertaking activities such as climbing a practice wall with a safety harness. Or, you may want to challenge it directly, which might either cure your fear or give you a panic attack. It is something that you need to consider before you undertake the challenges listed below.


    • Ascending a practice wall
    • Sky diving
    • Flying in a helicopter 
    • Paragliding
    • Bungie jumping 
    • walking over a high bridge
    • Ascending a high building using the staircase

    Closely Linked Phobias

    There are phobias that are linked with acrophobia, which you may be also experiencing. Fortunately, these can often be treated alongside each other. It is important to gain an understanding of what phobia you have as it is easy to become confused with those closely related.


    Some Of These Include: 


    Aviophobia

    An extreme fear of flying, and often stems from other phobias such as acrophobia.


    Illyngophobia

    Otherwise known as the fear of vertigo. It is not the fear of heights that causes the phobia, but rather the fear of looking down and feeling intense dizziness/vertigo from high places. 


    Climacophobia

    An extreme fear of the action of climbing (especially stairs or ladders) and alike acrophobia often panic when they are high up. Also, alike Illyngophobia, It is also common for sufferers to experience vertigo when looking down.


    Conclusion

    Acrophobia is crippling anxiety that at times will feel is going to carry itself with you for the rest of your life. This is not true, however, and with action steps, it can be successfully treated and you can conquer fear of heights.


    Treatment options range from working with a therapist to newer options such as virtual reality applications, which are becoming a popular and effective choice that you can practice in your own home. 


    The fear of heights often links with other phobias which can be treated at the same time, so it is important to do your research and gain a thorough understanding of your phobias and how to treat them.


    References

    1: National Science Foundation: No fear of falling 


    2: JOHNS HOPKINS MEDICINE: Phobias


    3: National Library of Medicine: [Treatment of acrophobia in a virtual environment]


    4: ScienceDaily: Virtual reality helping to treat fear of heights