Acrophobia: What is it, symptoms and how to get over it?

 

Acrophobia. Are you afraid of heights? Do you feel unable to observe a landscape from the top of a mountain? Are you horrified when you think about stairs? Acrophobia or phobia of heights is an anxiety disorder that makes it difficult for those who suffer from it to lead a fully normal life. It can incapacitate people even to perform actions as daily as peer into a balcony or look out the window from a building. Discover here the symptoms, causes, and consequences of acrophobia. In addition, we will tell you how to overcome it.

Acrophobia

Acrophobia

Acrophobia-Definition

Acrophobia can be defined as an intense fear of heights. People with this anxiety disorder panic from being in high places or from even imagining being near heights (a lift, stairs, etc.). Between 2% and 5% of the population faces this problem and the majority of those affected are women.

What is a phobia? We can’t go on talking about acrophobia without defining what is a phobia precisely. This term is used with constantly in everyday language and sometimes we misuse it. Other words like “depression” or “stress” suffer the same daily distortions. Its indiscriminate use confuses and makes it complicated to speak about these problems properly.

A phobia is a fear reaction that happens when a person is threatened by the object of their fear. These responses are always given to certain stimuli (cars, water, insects, etc.) and tend to be disproportionate.

That is to say, if an enormous poisonous snake follows us and we feel an intense fear, we can’t consider that we have a phobia. This would be a normal reaction and emotion. In fact, the anxiety symptoms we feel in this type of stimuli are adaptive because it allows us to conserve our life. However, if we faint every time someone mentions the blood, we could use the term phobia since it’s not a proportional reaction.

Phobias are unwarranted reactions. Even the person who suffers them considers them irrational. These fears can turn out to be a real nightmare for those who are facing them. In this article, we will tell you everything you need to know about acrophobia or phobia of heights and how to overcome it.

Acrophobia-Symptoms

People who suffer from acrophobia not only feel a deep anxiety on the roof of a skyscraper or avoid risky sports that involve rising a great distance from the ground.

Other actions we take on a daily basis such as looking out the window from the first floor or crossing a slightly elevated bridge can be extremely difficult for people with acrophobia if it’s very intense. 

There are different stimuli that produce intense fear in the acrophobic, but not everyone is afraid of the same situations. In addition, there are different degrees of intensity in fear of heights.

These are the most common psychological and physiological symptoms:

  1. Anxiety
  2. Panic
  3. Loss of control
  4. Headache
  5. Dizziness
  6. Tension and muscle agitation
  7. Severe palpitations

Acrophobia-Causes

It should be noted that we are all afraid of heights since childhood, but the degree of fear varies from one person to another. This fear is also present in animals and it is adaptive, it avoids dangerous falls. As for people with height phobia, the reasons for their disorder may be totally different. Here are the main causes:

1- Acrophobia from traumatic events

Generally, these events usually take place during childhood. From the most common events such as falls to major accidents in which the victim is seriously affected and this may have an impact on a phobia. This does not imply that all people who suffer some unpleasant event related to height will suffer acrophobia.

On the other hand, there are people who acquired this disorder through observation even though they were not injured. This process is called vicarious learning. For example, if we see a wasp bite our older brother and observe his panic reaction, it is quite possible that we feel fear every time a similar insect approaches us.

2- Fear of Heights since birth

Currently, researchers are investigating the inheritance of predisposing factors to this phobia. It is believed that in families with acrophobia, children are born observing the distress and eventually develop this disorder. 

3-Cognitive biased in Acrophobia

The deviations in our cognitive processes also play an important role in causing such phobias. The processing wrong the data on heights can rise excessive concern and stress response, leading into a phobia. A tendency to overestimate the occurrence of accidents or the severity of accidents is common when this happens.

acrophobia

Acrophobia-Fear of heights

Fear of heights-Consequences

There are many people who feel totally unable to clean building windows or consider the idea of skydiving extremely unpleasant. This does not imply that they have a problem. It is common for us to object to potentially dangerous situations. But people who suffer from acrophobia experience intense height-related discomfort frequently. 

Not all phobias are clinically relevant. For example, having a disproportionate fear of tarantulas is not a major concern for a person who spends most of his time in a big city. However, heights are everywhere. There are cities full of steep slopes and buildings that are hell for acrophobes. On the other hand, in cities that are valleys where there are no slopes, it might feel like heaven for a person who fears heights.

1. Avoidance behaviors of acrophobes

For acrophobes, these anxiety symptoms trigger several avoidance behaviors. Running away or avoiding the stimuli that trigger your fear keeps the disorder going.

2. Acrophobes relinquish usual activities

Acrophobics often reject fun activities like enjoying the viewpoints, hopping on a roller coaster or taking a cable car.

3. Acrophobia work problems

They may have difficulties at work if their job involves dealing with heights. For most people, moving to the tenth floor is not an issue. However, for acrophobes, it can pose a serious problem. Fear can be incredibly disabling and they may go so far as to diminish their performance or even be forced to quit their job.

4. Acrophobes general decline in quality of life

Likewise, any phobia can also significantly worsen the quality of life of the person in several areas. They are very frustrating emotionally and can not be ignored by the sufferer. In addition, they have negative effects on people’s self-control. These disorders are relatively common and get a lot of attention from psychology professionals, who are looking for ways to help people who are suffering from excessive anxiety.

Is vertigo the same as fear of heights?

Often we relate these two terms because both have to do with a discomfort related to heights, but they are not synonyms. Vertigo a sensation of whirling and loss of balance. It seems as the elements around us seem to move or that we are spinning.  On the other hand, people who suffer from a phobia of heights can have vertigo at any given time. However, vertigo is only one of the symptoms of this disorder. In short, these difficulties are related although they are not equivalent.

How to overcome the phobia to heights?

If your fear of heights is not pathological, there are ways to keep calm that can distract you from these fears. It is possible to relax in situations of anxiety, however, if you really do have a phobia that harms you noticeably, it is best to seek professional help.

There are psychological assessment tools such as questionnaires that allow us to know if we are facing an unreasonable fear or not. There are several therapies that have proven to be a great help for acrophobia. Even so, it is not known which is the best method and each person is different. However, seeking a suitable treatment is essential to improve the quality of life of those affected.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

This is the most commonly used therapy for treating phobias. Procedures such as exposure techniques have a long and successful tradition in research and clinical application. These methods gradually bring the acrophobes closer to the object of their fears. They become progressively more secure and reduce anxiety reactions.

Patients can be directed by professionals to the fear stimuli or submit directly to self-exposure techniques, in which they make more direct contact with their fears. On the other hand, the exhibition can be symbolic or live. It can be done even in a group or individually.

The symptoms do not always disappear completely but can carry out daily activities such as riding a lift or looking out a window without it paralyzing them in fear.  Psychological intervention is likely to greatly increase their well-being.

In addition, these therapies are under continuous review. In fact, the rise of new technologies, such as virtual reality, has helped people face their fears in a more controlled setting. The acrophobe can overcome challenges that he could not even imagine before.

Thank you very much for reading this article. And you, do you feel comfortable observing our of the window of a tall building or traveling by helicopter? If you have any questions or want to make a contribution, please comment below.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Ainhoa Arranz Aldana.

Alejandra is a clinical and health psychologist. She is a child specialist with a diploma in evaluation and intervention in autism. She has worked in different schools with young children and private practice for over 6 years. She is interested in early childhood intervention, emotional intelligence, and attachment styles. As a brain and human behavior enthusiast, she is more than happy to answer your questions and share her experience.