More than twenty-six million Americans suffer from a phobia: an involuntary, paralyzing fear of an object or situation. Of the over two hundred phobias that have been identified, one of the most common is acrophobia, the fear of heights.
Everyone has normal fears, but a phobia is multiplied and irrational. Any person, for example, will feel a twinge of anxiety peering over the edge of a twenty-story drop on a windy day. An acrophobe, on the other hand, would be so overcome with fear that simply climbing a ladder, walking onto a balcony, or driving across a bridge would be a terrifying experience.
When placed in a situation that triggers a phobia, a person’s heart rate, respiration, and body temperature increase, they may become dizzy or nauseous, and they may feel faint or tremble. Mentally, they perceive the situation to be far more dangerous than reality, and their bodies react with the fight-or-flight response typical in any threat situation.
Phobias disrupt a person’s life in subtle ways as well. A fear of heights may cause an otherwise aspiring executive to decline a promotion that would involve an office on the tenth floor. Retrieving a child’s toy from the roof or putting up outdoor holiday lights would be impossible. Even standing on a chair to replace a light bulb may cause considerable anxiety. With treatment, however, such paralyzing fear can be overcome.
People with severe phobias should seek a psychologist’s help, whose professional detachment and training can help the sufferer overcome the irrational fear and behavior of a phobia. Discussing progress with someone experienced in treating phobias can be encouraging even when it seems as though no progress is being made. Because of the traumatic nature of certain treatments, a professional’s guidance is necessary to keep from aggravating the phobia rather than overcoming it.
Treatments for Acrophobia
The first step in overcoming a fear of heights is learning to control the physical symptoms. When faced with a threatening situation, taking slow, deep breaths can help slow the heart rate and increase the oxygen flow to muscles to keep from tensing up. If possible, a few minutes of meditation may be effective in relieving some tension. Relaxing music, aromatherapy, and even some stretching or light massage can help relieve the physical symptoms of a phobia.
Many acrophobic people treat their fears through avoidance. Choosing to live in a single-story house, not putting holiday lights on the roof, and hiring someone to clean the gutters are all ways that an acrophobe could avoid heights in their daily life. While it may be effective because the person no longer experiences the anxiety, avoidance is not a realistic treatment. Unexpected situations can occur that force a person to face their phobia, and knowing how to overcome it can minimize future anxiety.
Psychotherapy treatment searches for the root of a phobia, usually a single traumatic event. This treatment, however, has a relatively low success rate for a number of reasons. Acrophobia frequently develops as children are learning to crawl and are discovering the dangers of falling, yet adults seeking treatment for phobia may not recall a specific incident that sparked their fear of heights. Furthermore, many psychologists believe that certain fears may be instinctive, and the fear of heights may have evolved from primitive ancestors’ fear of cliffs.
In the 1960s, psychologists began to pursue more radical treatments than searching for the root of the phobia. After all, they reasoned, it isn’t necessary to find the gun and learn the motivation of the assailant in order to treat a gunshot wound. Behavior therapy skips the analysis and starts treatment immediately, and today it is the most effective form of phobia treatment.
The first type of behavior therapy is desensitization: gradually exposing the patient to the phobia in small steps from the least fearful situation to the most fearful. This allows them to adjust to each step and overcome the fear of incrementally. With acrophobia, this may begin by simply viewing a picture taken from a great height, or mentally visualizing different situations involving heights.
Then treatment may progress to standing on a low stool, standing on a chair, riding in a glass elevator, and eventually standing on a roof or other open height and peering over the edge. At each step, the patient learns deep breathing and muscle relaxation techniques to control the physical symptoms of their fear. The size of the steps is determined by the severity of the fear and how quickly the patient progresses.
The second type of behavior therapy is flooding: immediately introducing one of the patient’s most fearful situations without gradual steps. After literally surviving their worst fear, the smaller steps are not so traumatic. This approach may be used if time is limited or the patient is eager to get it over with, and may involve visiting the observation deck of a skyscraper or top level of a parking garage.
Flooding is based on the idea that fear response to the fight-or-flight response to a phobia cannot last forever, and as the effects wear off, the patient realizes that they had nothing to fear all along. This type of behavior therapy is less common than desensitization and naturally is unsuitable for patients with a heart condition or other medical concerns that could be aggravated by their reactions to their fear.
Behavior therapy does have drawbacks. Gradual desensitization is time-consuming, and both types of therapy may involve out-of-office visits to confront different heights. Such visits can be uncomfortable for the patient and are frequently interrupted if they occur in public places such as a scenic overlook or observation tower. Therapists are working to incorporate virtual reality technology to overcome these drawbacks.
Prescriptions for tranquilizers and anti-depressants may help some individuals conquer their fear of heights by controlling the physical symptoms of the phobia. Individuals who do choose medication, however, must be aware of the side effects including impaired abilities and addiction, and most medications are not suitable for use during pregnancy. Medications alone will not overcome a fear of heights, but may be useful in conjunction with other forms of therapy.
Friends and Family
Friends and family are an important part of any successful treatment. Simply being willing to help can mean a great deal to someone struggling with a phobia. Friends and family members need to be patient and be prepared for setbacks, yet continue to be supportive even when symptoms appear worse than before therapy began. Most importantly, they must realize that the person with acrophobia is the person in charge: only they can overcome their fear, but they cannot do it alone.
Millions of people are afraid of heights, whether it’s a simple stepladder, a balcony, or a skyscraper. With careful treatment, acrophobia can be overcome, and in the end, knowing your perseverance has beaten the fear will take your spirit to the greatest height of all.