Fear of Heights
Fear of heights — or acrophobia (from the Greek words ἄκρον peak or summit and φόβος fear), to use the technical phrase — is universal and natural among human beings. It is not at all hard to see why — after all, the person who falls from a high place is almost certain to be killed. And if there is little or no protection against such a fall — for instance, if one is standing on the small surface of a fifty-foot high rock, as opposed to a balcony at a similar height, where there would be guard rails — then the fear is greatly increased. Most mammals also display this rational fear, and those that live in high places have evolved to suit their environment — monkeys in trees have forward vision for judging distances, and mountain creatures like the Rocky Mountain goat are known for their sure-footedness.
When psychologists speak of fear of heights or acrophobia, however, they are referring more specifically to an irrational fear of high places — that is, a fear that is not necessarily motivated by anything reasonable; the fear, essentially, is just there because it is. Acrophobics are often so afraid of vertical heights that they refuse to do many of the things that normal people take for granted that they can do, such as going up a staircase, going out onto a balcony or riding on a Ferris wheel at a fair. When they are forced to do such things, they may develop panic attacks and be psychologically unable to get themselves back down. Scientists estimate that some five percent of the American population suffers from some degree of fear of heights or acrophobia, which is about twice as prevalent in women as it is in men. Although few people realize it, such famous people as Isaac Asimov, Woody Allen and Whoopi Goldberg were acrophobic. This article will look at some theories about the causes of acrophobia, and what psychologists and psychiatrists can do to solve it.
Things that should not be confused with acrophobia
There are other phobias that overlap with the fear of heights or acrophobia but are not to be confused with it. Aerophobia refers more specifically to a fear of flying; bathmophobia, of staircases and slopes; and climacophobia, of climbing. Vertigo is when a person develops physical symptoms — spinning and dizziness — in response to an unnatural perception of motion; this should be treated by a physician.
Some historical theories about the causes
In the early 20th century Sigmund Freud formulated his theory on the causes of fear, including that of the fear of heights. He believed that the thing feared served as a symbol for some other fear, usually one that stemmed from an event that had occurred in early childhood but had been repressed into the subconscious. It may be something that happened in real life, or it may have been on TV or in a movie. The older fear would produce feelings of anxiety that the person would attribute to the thing that was now causing fear.
The visual cliff
In more recent times, scientists’ perspectives have changed, owing to the findings made by new research. In 1960, Cornell University psychologists Eleanor J. Gibson and R. D. Walk did their famous “visual cliff” experiment. The “cliff” was a sheet of Plexiglas set immediately above a checkerboard cloth, which dropped to about four feet downwards. Thirty-six infants were placed on one side of the cliff, with their parents on the other side beckoning to them, often holding a toy of some kind. Twenty-seven of these infants, or three-fourths of them, crawled over without any problems, with only nine refusing to go over at all or doing so with hesitancy. From these results, Gibson and Walk concluded that healthy infants possess a form of depth perception as soon as they are unable to crawl. Whether a fear of high places is innate, however, the experiment did not reveal.
Possible causes of the fear of heights
Since the visual cliff experiment, scientists have pointed to a number of possible sources of abnormal fear of heights. These include:
- over-reliance on visual skills
- a frightening fall early in life
- seeing one’s parents react nervously when in high places
- inability to recognize visual cues
The fear of heights is also widely attributed to a dysfunction that makes it difficult to maintain one’s balance. Non-acrophobics can keep their balance by employing both visual and vestibular (coming from the sensory system devoted to this function) cues. The acrophobic, on the other hand, has a deficient vestibular system, and so he or she has to make up for that deficiency by relying more than normally on the visual capacity. And when one is high above the ground, one has more visual processing to do than when one is on the ground. As a result, the visual cortex soon becomes overloaded and the person becomes confused.
Not everyone experiences the fear of heights or acrophobia in the same way; as with all conditions, there are as many ways in which it manifests itself as there are people who suffer from it. Some people experience fear of heights all, or almost all, of the time. For others, it occurs mainly as a response to some stimulus, such as the sight of something that towers high above the viewer.
Treatment for the disorder
There are a number of drugs that psychiatrists prescribe to treat acrophobia. These include various β blockers, antidepressants and benzodiazepines. Drugs of the first type work by blocking the flow of adrenaline that occurs when a person is experiencing fear, and hence the accompanying symptoms such as sweating, shaky hands and fast heartbeat. Antidepressants such as Effexor, Paxil and Zoloft are commonly used in severe cases of acrophobia, while benzodiazepines act quickly and suppress anxiety.
It needs to be remembered that none of these drugs actually “cures” the problem. What they do is they use chemicals to suppress the symptoms thereof, and indeed some drugs may actually produce side effects that are as bad as or even worse than the acrophobia itself. In addition, benzodiazepines can be addictive as well as sedating. As a result, they are prescribed only when all other types of medication have failed.
Other forms of treatment
Acrophobics can also overcome their fears through non-medical forms of treatment. One of these, given on the questions-and-answers website Askville, involves going up a ladder, increasing by one step each day — making sure, of course, that the ladder is steady. Cure, says the person giving this answer, “is gradually pushing yourself.” Some experts, however, recommend that the vestibular problems mentioned in the Causes section of this article should be taken care of before acrophobics can expose themselves to high ground.
Another way is to go to a place where one experiences acrophobia, and stop walking the instant the fear begins to manifest itself, pay attention to that sensation and make oneself aware of it, without trying to run away from the feeling or pretend that it does not exist. At this point the acrophobic does not have to go any closer to the source of his or her fear than he already is, but at the same time he should not give up trying to get over his phobia. This process should be repeated again and again, with the patient going farther and farther towards the source of his fear each time, until eventually his acrophobia is completely cured. Accepting what one is feeling is a big step towards making that feeling fade away.
Hypnosis is commonly used by psychiatrists to treat phobias, including those caused by heights. Again, this does not cure the phobia per se; as with drugs, it aims at the symptoms, only here, instead of using chemicals, the patient is allowing another person temporary control over his or her mind. Self-hypnosis may also be used; several books have been written on this subject, most notably “Self Hypnosis, Fear of Heights, Acrophobia Hypnotherapy” by Rachael Eccles, which is available on CD from Amazon.
But the best approach to curing acrophobia is probably good old-fashioned positive thinking. Having pinpointed the root cause of the phobia, the patient has the next task of reassuring himself or herself that there is really nothing to be afraid of and that the fear that he has been suffering from is an irrational one. And this can be accomplished more easily with the help of loved ones.
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