Fear of height or acrophobia is a relatively common disorder, but certain people experience intense sensations just by thinking about heights.
If you experience panic in amusement parks when trying to get on certain devices, you fear using escalators and not electric it is possible that you suffer from acrophobia.
Here’s what you need to know about acrophobia: who it affects, what causes it, what symptoms it shows, and how you can overcome it.
What is acrophobia?
Acrophobia is an irrational fear and phobia of heights. 1 in 20 adults experience some degree of acrophobia and it is more common in women than men.
The term was coined in the late nineteenth century by the Italian physician Andrea Verga.
Acrophobia is not a binary condition where you suffer from it or not. It represents a spectrum with different intensities ranging from mild, moderate and even intense forms.
All around us there are and in many places in the world there are high points that certain people do not pay attention to.
However, a person with acrophobia usually avoids them, for example, amusement parks and their roller coasters, the top of a small hill, bridges and even glass-walled elevators.
In short, any elevation means horror for the person.
Therefore, it is a fear that directly and indirectly affects the quality of life of the person.
You should not confuse vertigo with acrophobia. The first is a condition of the inner ear and the other is an excessive fear and phobia of any kind of height.
Causes of acrophobia
Similar to many other phobias, there is a great deal of controversy about its exact origin.
Currently, there is no universal consensus on the origin of acrophobia, however, numerous hypotheses have been proposed.
Next, we will talk to you, in summary, about the most popular:
It has been proposed that there is a genetic predisposition of the person to develop extreme fear of heights.
The literature supporting this theory has grown over the decades.
A study published in Behavior Research and Therapy in 1995 showed that only 11.95% of people with acrophobia had experienced a traumatic fall at some point in their lives.
Another study, published in 1998 by the same journal, showed that there was no relationship between the number of falls before the age of 9 and fear of heights between the ages of 11 and 18.
This case is curious because it was observed that the number of falls causing some kind of injury (dislocation, fracture, etc.) was higher in individuals who did not develop an irrational fear of heights.
Therefore, the possibility is suggested that acrophobia may be a non-associative phobia. That is, there must not necessarily be a traumatic event to trigger it. For the patient, fear was always present.
The theory that affirms the existence of a traumatic event, at some point in the patient’s life, that originated the phobia. This process is called conditioning.
Any injury from a fall from a certain height can be very dangerous as it can end with dislocation, lacerations, fractures or even head trauma. They are the triggers for the fear of heights.
Psychopathology uses the diathesis-stress theory as an explanation of why a fall results in an acquired phobia and another does not.
He affirms that there must be a genetic predisposition (diathesis) that favors the development of a phobia after a traumatic event (stress). That would explain the differences between individuals who have experienced fall-related trauma.
However, there are limitations as a study published by the Virginia Institute of Psychiatry did an extensive evaluation of the data that affirms the sustainability of the diathesis-stress model.
They determined that the model may not be applicable not only for the origin of the fear and phobia of heights, but also for all phobias.
Therefore, it is possible that a phobia is a fear that can manifest itself without an associated traumatic event.
The vestibular system is located in the inner ear. They are in charge of indicating to the brain and cerebellum about the current position of the body in relation to space.
That is, if we are lying down, sitting, walking, or turning around. This is called proprioception. Hearing, vision, muscles and joints are responsible for balance.
Patients with vestibular or balance dysfunction in general describe a fear or anxiety of heights.
It should not be confused with vertigo which is more common, especially at very high altitudes. Balance is much more than vision and, being very high, our vision loses a stationary reference point.
When this happens, the sensation of balance is lost, producing dizziness and anxiety. Therefore, treatment that seeks to improve vestibular dysfunction could have a positive effect on this secondary fear of heights.
In people with acrophobia, these symptoms occur even in places that are not very high (for example, the first or second floor of a building).
Self Defense Mechanism
Fear of heights is, along with fear of loud sounds, a natural instinct in infants. Not only in humans, but also in other mammals.
Repeated exposure to heights during critical developmental stages is hypothesized to reduce this innate fear of heights.
Acrophobia could occur in people who never managed to overcome this stage of development due to lack of necessary exposure to places with a certain height from an early age, such as a balcony.
Mild or moderate forms of acrophobia can result from observing falls from a certain height, whether in movies, television, or even real-life situations.
The fear of heights can also be acquired by observing the panic that other people feel towards heights.
These two stimuli could manipulate the thoughts and emotions of the person who developed a phobia of heights even without having experienced a traumatic situation.
symptoms of acrophobia
Severe acrophobia is a rare condition.
On the other hand, it is common to observe in most people, mild or moderate forms of fear of heights that manifest themselves in a variety of ways.
Here are the most common symptoms of acrophobia:
anxiety and panic
The psychological symptoms in people who suffer from acrophobia can manifest themselves when they find themselves in a place with a certain height and even with the mere thought of finding themselves in such a place.
Anxiety occurs when finding yourself in situations like climbing a ladder, looking through a window, standing on a balcony, or even crossing bridges.
The person with acrophobia can even suffer high levels of anxiety and worry just thinking about bumping into those places, falling and dying.
Like many phobias, fear paralyzes the person. It is called tonic immobility. The person feels the irresistible urge to escape, but the fear is so intense that it does not allow him to do so.
It is due to hyperstimulation of the brain that seeks to develop an appropriate response to the trigger that is fear.
The panic that spreads in the person when being in a place with a certain height generates the feeling of lack of air or of not being able to breathe properly. This feeling is called dyspnea.
It is caused by stimulation of the autonomic nervous system, since it increases our respiratory rate. Therefore, the person takes inhales quickly, but superficially.
Increased blood pulse
When the brain encounters a situation that it categorizes as dangerous (heights, in this case), it sends signals to the rest of the body to prepare to act.
This response is manifested as an elevation in cardiac function and, therefore, a greater amount of blood is pumped per minute.
Decreased blood pressure
During the first few seconds of a panic or anxiety attack, blood pressure rises as a logical response to cardiac stimulation.
In response to the constriction of the blood vessels, they subsequently dilate. The drop in blood pressure is accompanied by profuse sweating and can lead to fainting.
Headache, or headache, are common manifestations during or after experiencing fear.
It is triggered by the sudden release of neurotransmitters (chemicals that mediate neuronal electrical signals) and causes pain.
The thought of being in a high place generates discomfort, cravings and headaches in the person with acrophobia.
tremors and dizziness
Tremor and a feeling of dizziness are common. A person with acrophobia, when being in a high place, loses a visual reference point that allows them to feel balanced.
Everyone experiences some degree of tremor and dizziness when in elevated positions. However, the physical and psychological response in acrophobia is more accentuated.
The nervous and gastrointestinal systems are closely related. Situations of stress, discomfort or fear generate an upset stomach.
This manifests as cramps, a burning sensation in the pit of the stomach, heartburn and other similar symptoms.
Techniques to overcome acrophobia
At present there are different types of treatments such as psychological, exposure and cognitive for acrophobia. Although it is a very limiting fear and phobia, it can be overcome.
The treatment of choice will depend on which one you feel most comfortable with. Of course, the path will be long and difficult, but it is possible.
We present the most effective techniques and ways to deal with this phobia:
Confront the source of fear progressively
First, the reason or motive for which the fear is felt must be internally identified (many of which do not have a defined or Rational reason ).
Exposure to those stimuli and situations that produce fear and/or panic are carried out with the aim of learning to control this anxiety.
Avoiding those situations that we are afraid of, only manages to reaffirm the problem of anxiety.
Repeated and frequent exposure, in moderation, alleviates anxiety reactions, which disappear as they face the feared situations.
First, you must acknowledge your fear. Make a list as extensive as possible of those situations and locations that cause acrophobia.
Acrophobia is a debilitating condition that makes a person’s daily routine difficult.
Think of all those times when you have had to leave because of unbearable fear. Everything that he would like to do, but that his body and mind make it impossible.
Of course, remember that concrete goals and consistency are the keys to success.
Increase exposure time gradually as anxiety subsides. Keep in mind that short-term goals are most effective, whether they are daily or weekly.
The second recommendation is control over your breathing.
It is the foundation of many mental therapies, such as meditation, which act as a short-term fear treatment.
You must acknowledge your fear and control it. Breathing becomes difficult, but can be controlled by taking slow, deep breaths. Let go of the cause of your fear and focus your efforts on controlling your breathing.
This relaxes your body and lowers cortisol levels. This, in turn, slows your heart rate and breathing rate.
For people with acrophobia, even thinking about high places creates panic and anxiety.
However, you must understand that it is a physical and mental response that can be controlled with different approaches.
Yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, and exercise are proven methods to help deal with stress and anxiety.
Increase the time spent meditating and remember to incorporate exercise into your schedule.
Avoid thinking about bad experiences
Sometimes a traumatic situation is the root of acrophobia.
For your part, recognize that a trauma should not define the rest of your life and although it is a bitter memory, it can be overcome.
Writing down your thoughts and meditation helps to overcome bad experiences by confronting and overcoming them.
We also recommend the support of mental health professionals who can guide the person to overcome their traumas.
On the other hand, remember that you are not alone. Hundreds of people share his fear.
Talking about your experiences and fears is an important step in coping.
If the phobia has not subsided or is showing no improvement, it has been suggested that hypnotic therapies may be beneficial in treating the fear.
The subconscious is a territory that we cannot access normally and, on many occasions, it influences our fears and insecurities, feeding itself.
Hypnosis is the alternative in which the therapist accesses the subconscious allows the therapist to dissociate you from your extreme emotions, such as panic and anxiety, when you think about high places.
Therefore, your subconscious adopts a new way of fighting your fear. Eventually, the fear might go away.
Do not focus attention on the height but on the landscape
Therapies that allow you to dissociate your fears from the current situation are highly effective.
For the person with acrophobia to find yourself in a high place, it is natural to be afraid.
Therefore, focus your attention on your surroundings. Observe, detail and appreciate your content like never before.
This directs the consciousness and emotions towards the positive aspect of what surrounds the person and not simply the negative (heights).
University Professional in the area of Human Resources, Postgraduate in Occupational Health and Hygiene of the Work Environment, 14 years of experience in the area of health. Interested in topics of Psychology, Occupational Health, and General Medicine.