Bathmophobia, or fear of slopes or stairs, is a somewhat complicated phobia. It is quite similar to climacophobia, or fear of climbing stairs, except in its specific focus. In bathmophobia, the sufferer may panic when simply observing a steep slope, while those with climacophobia typically experience symptoms only when expected to actually climb or descend. The difference is subtle but important, and can only be accurately diagnosed by a trained clinician.
Bathmophobia can be seen in both children and adults. It is also fairly common among animals, particularly household pets. If your child has a fear of stairs or slopes, keep in mind that fears are a normal part of development. Bathmophobia, as with other phobias, is generally not diagnosed in children unless it persists for more than six months.
Causes of Bathmophobia
Bathmophobia may be caused by a wide range of factors. A particularly common cause is an early negative experience with stairs or a steep hill. If you slipped or fell on steep stairs or watched someone else struggle with shortness of breath while climbing, you may be at a greater risk for developing bathmophobia.
Particularly in children, bathmophobia can also be triggered by negotiating or even just contemplating a particularly "scary" looking set of stairs. For example, as a child I was heavily involved with a local community theater. The steps up to our backstage costume loft were large and imposing. They were also open at the back, allowing the climber to see exactly how high he or she was. The openings were large, leading a child's imagination to believe that she could somehow slip through. I had no occasion to climb those stairs for years, further adding to my sense of dread.
I went through a period of immense stress during that time, and eventually developed a series of oddly disturbing dreams. In my dreams, I struggled to cross a sloped floor. The slope was gentle at first, but became steeper as I attempted to cross. I would nearly reach my destination, only to have the floor sharply tilt to near-vertical, dropping me back to my original starting point.
When the stress abated, so did the strange dreams. Nonetheless, for years afterward, every time I confronted a sloped floor or tricky set of stairs, I remembered the terror in those dreams. Perhaps I had a touch of bathmophobia, originally triggered by the theater stairs and worsened by stress?
In addition to the above-mentioned climacophobia, bathmophobia may be related to other disorders. Acrophobia, or fear of heights, is exceptionally common. What appears to be a fear of stairs may, in fact, be a fear of the height that the stairs achieve. Illygnophobia, or fear of vertigo, can also cause symptoms similar to those of bathmophobia.
Medical causes must also be considered. True vertigo is a medical disorder of the balance system that causes a feeling of spinning or dizziness. The term is also applied medically to similar symptoms that are not caused by a balance disorder. Both types can be worsened by even minor changes in height. By definition, a fear that is reasonable due to an existing medical condition cannot be called a "phobia." Therefore, if you suffer from medical vertigo, fearing that stairs and slopes may trigger your symptoms does not mean that you suffer from bathmophobia.
If your clinician determines that your symptoms are caused by bathmophobia, you are likely to receive cognitive-behavioral therapy. The goal of this type of therapy is to help you replace your fearful thoughts and behaviors with more rational alternatives. You will be taught relaxation exercises to help you remain calm, and slowly introduced to the object of your fear through a process known as systematic desensitization.
Although it takes time, therapy has an excellent success rate in treating this type of phobia. Choosing a therapist that you trust is an essential component in working through your fear. See "Finding a Therapist" for tips on selecting the clinician that is right for you.
American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.