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Acrophobia

Fear of Heights

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Updated July 16, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Acrophobia is defined as a fear of heights. Unlike a specific phobia like aerophobia -- fear of flying -- and other specific phobias, acrophobia can cause a person to fear a variety of things related to being far from the ground. Depending on the phobia's severity, an acrophobic person may equally fear being on a high floor of a building or simply climbing a ladder.

Acrophobia and Related Conditions

  • Vertigo

    True vertigo is a medical condition that causes a sensation of spinning and dizziness. Illyngophobia is a phobia in which the fear of developing vertigo can actually lead to vertigo-like symptoms. Acrophobia can induce similar feelings, but the three conditions are not the same. See a doctor for tests if you experience vertigo symptoms. Medical tests may include bloodwork, CT scans and MRIs, which can rule out a variety of neurological conditions.

  • Bathmophobia

    Bathmophobia, or the fear of slopes and stairs, is sometimes related to acrophobia. In bathmophobia, you may panic when viewing a steep slope, even if you have no need to climb the slope. Although many people with bathmophobia have acrophobia, most acrophobia sufferers do not also experience bathmophobia.

  • Climacophobia

    Climacophobia is related to bathmophobia, except that the fear generally occurs only when contemplating making a climb. If you suffer from climacophobia, you are probably not afraid to see a steep set of stairs as long as you can remain safely at the bottom. However, climacophobia may occur in tandem with acrophobia.

  • Aerophobia

    Aerophobia is the specific fear of flying. Depending on the severity of your fear, you may be afraid of airports and airplanes, or may only feel the fear when in the air. Aerophobia may occasionally occur alongside acrophobia.

Symptoms of Acrophobia

If you experience acrophobia, you may never experience vertigo symptoms. Instead, you may feel a sense of panic when at height. You may instinctively begin to search for something to cling to. You may find that you are unable to trust your own sense of balance. Common reactions include descending immediately, crawling on all fours and kneeling or otherwise lowering the body.

Emotionally and physically, the response to acrophobia is similar to the response to any other phobia. You may begin to shake, sweat, experience heart palpitations and even cry or yell out. You may feel terrified and paralyzed. It might become difficult to think.

If you have acrophobia, it is likely that you will begin to dread situations that may cause you to spend time at height. For example, you may worry that an upcoming vacation will put you into a hotel room on a high floor. You may put off home repairs for fear of using a ladder. You might avoid visiting friends' homes if they have balconies or upstairs picture windows.

Danger of Acrophobia

The biggest danger that most phobias present is the risk of limiting one's life and activities to avoid the feared situation. Acrophobia is unusual, however, in that having a panic attack while high in the air could actually lead to the imagined danger.

The situation may be safe as long as normal precautions are taken, but panicking could lead you to make unsafe moves. Therefore, it is extremely important that acrophobia be professionally treated as quickly as possible, particularly if heights are a regular part of your life.

Causes of Acrophobia

Research shows that a certain amount of reluctance around heights is normal, not only for humans but for all visual animals. In 1960, famed research psychologists Gibson and Walk did a "Visual Cliff" experiment which showed crawling infants, along with babies of numerous species, who refused to cross a thick glass panel that covered an apparently sharp drop-off. The presence of the infant's mother, encouragingly calling him, did not convince the babies that it was safe.

Therefore, acrophobia seems to be at least partially ingrained, possibly as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Nonetheless, most children and adults use caution but are not inordinately afraid of heights. Acrophobia, like all phobias, appears to be a hyper-reaction of the normal fear response. Many experts believe that this may be a learned response to either a previous fall or a parent's nervous reaction to heights.

Treating Acrophobia

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a main treatment of choice for specific phobias. Behavioral techniques that expose the sufferer to the feared situation either gradually (systematic desensitization) or rapidly (flooding) are frequently used. In addition, the client is taught ways of stopping the panic reaction and regaining emotional control.

Traditionally, actual exposure to heights is the most common solution. However, several research studies performed since 2001 have shown that virtual reality may be just as effective. A major advantage of virtual reality treatment is the savings in both cost and time, as there is no need for "on-location" therapist accompaniment. This method is not yet readily available, but may be worth trying to find if you can.

The drug D-Cycloserine has been in clinical trials for anxiety disorder treatment since 2008. It appears that using the medication in tandem with cognitive-behavioral therapy may improve results, but the research remains preliminary at this time.

Acrophobia appears to be rooted in an evolutionary safety mechanism. Nonetheless, it represents an extreme variation on a normal caution, and can become quite life-limiting for sufferers. It can also be dangerous for those who experience a full panic reaction while at a significant height. Acrophobia can share certain symptoms with vertigo, a medical disorder with a variety of possible causes, as well as with other specific phobias. For these reasons, if you experience the signs of acrophobia, it is extremely important to seek professional help as soon as possible.

Sources:

Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. "The 'visual cliff'." Scientific American. 1960. 202, 67-71. May 5, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.wadsworth.com/psychology_d/templates/student_resources/0155060678_rathus/ps/ps05.html

Emmelkamp, Paul, Bruynzeel, Mary, Drost, Leonie, van der Mast, Charles. "Virtual Reality Treatment in Acrophobia: A Comparison with Exposure in Vivo" CyberPsychology & Behavior. June 1, 2001, 4(3): 335-339. May 5, 2008.

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