FEAR OF HEIGHTS

Fear of heights or acrophobia is one of the most common fears. 

Take a look at the picture above. Would you be comfortable sitting on that rock, with a steep drop below?  If your is answer no, then you are like 99.99% of normal people.  Taking crazy chances is not a way to disprove a fear. 

Although the fear of heights is associated with the fear of death, it has its own unique idiosyncrasies.  A portion of this fear is associated with the primitive brain or “id.”  It is a self-protection reaction to avoid injury or death.  The trigger of this fear is being near a perceived dangerous drop-off.  The danger does not have to be real.  It only needs to be perceived as real.  IMAX giant screens can impart just such a perception with much the same effect that a real danger would invoke. 

Most fears develop at a young age (12 and 25 years), but a fear of heights often appears in the over-60 crowd.  This is likely because of a fear of falling.  The falling fear (basophobia) is not quite the same as acrophobia, but the two are definitely connected.  They are discussed as if they were the same in this section.

1. Invisible Pulling Force.  If you have ever felt the urge to jump or you felt an invisible force tugging at you to step off a cliff, you are experiencing a normal sensation.  You’re not crazy after all.  It’s your mind telling you to step back. The French have coined the phrase L’Appel du Vide, or “a call of the void” to describe this sensation.  Wanting to move towards the fear, instead of away from it, appears to be strangely unique to acrophobia.  For example, people with arachnophobia do not feel the urge to touch a spider or to pick up a snake if they have ophidiophobia.   

2. Vertigo. This is a symptom that can be confused with the fear of heights. However, vertigo is a motion issue that is caused by an inner ear problem. It is not a height issue.  The inner ear is an intricate gyroscope-type of sensors that detect small changes in motion.  We could not stand upright on two legs without it.  Falling, on the other hand, involves a change in motion and direction.  There are medical tests to determine if you have an inner ear malfunction.  This is a common problem and is usually correctable.  There are many medical causes of vertigo.  It also strikes the elderly (people over 70) and strikes women more than men.  It is the number one cause for accidental deaths from falls.  [Lara Fernández, et. al. (2015) Vertigo and Dizziness in the Elderly, Front Neurol. 2015; 6: 144]  Hence, if you have a fear of heights, it is important to have a medical doctor eliminate vertigo, particularly if you are in a high risk group. 

3. Prior Trauma. Did you, or someone you know, fall from a height that resulted in serious injury or death?  Did you fall from a ladder?  Or perhaps there was an event that you were not personally invested in. The trauma may be from seeing a stranger fall from a building, watching a car drive over a cliff-side, etc.  If you can pinpoint a particular event, it would be helpful in reducing the fear of heights.  If the fear is so severe that it causes a panic attack, then professional help must be considered. 

4. Nightmares Trauma. This is a difficult area.  Normally, nightmares occur after a trauma.  They are a function of a normal brain.  However, a professional should address repeated nightmares that routinely disrupt sleep, or cause a fear of going to sleep.  They are usually curable. 

5. Vision Problems. There are vision problems that may increase a person’s sensitivity to falling dangers.  If things are blurry, your brain will likely over-compensate.  If depth perception is a problem, your fantastic brain will issue warning signals.  Have your eyes checked by a professional.  Simple adjustments can correct these focus and depth anomalies. 

6. Overprotective Parent.  There is the possibility that a fear of heights or falling is related to an overprotective parent.  Studies show that overprotective parents cause anxiety in children.  Were you barred from climbing trees, playing on swings, looking over the tops of railings in tall buildings, standing at the edge of glass elevators where you could look down, etc.?   Were either of your parents afraid of heights.  There are many books and publications dealing with over-protection.  Dr. Benjamin Spock’s advice to parents is to “loosen up, back off, and let the child go.”  He sold 50 million copies of his book in 39 languages. 

7. Manipulation. The most widely broadcast images of the 9-11 attack were of people falling from the twin towers.  The media claimed no responsibility for damages caused by the spike in world-wide fears of falling that resulted from those photos being shown over and over and over again.  This spike in fear was due to manipulation and not from a direct trauma.  Likewise, Alfred Hitchock’s film Vertigo contributed to increased stress and many sleepless nights for thousands of  people.

8. Personality Type Connection.  The personality types most susceptible to a fear of heights would be D and C.  A few famous people with acrophobia include: Sheryl Crow, Sylvester Stallone, Matt Damon, Shailene Woodley, Gustave Eiffel (the designer of the Eiffle tower), Woody Allen, and many others.