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Fear of Vertigo


Updated June 28, 2012

Illyngophobia, or fear of vertigo, is a somewhat complicated phobia. It is related to acrophobia, or fear of heights. However, those with acrophobia are literally afraid of being at a significant height. Those who suffer illyngophobia are not afraid of the height itself, but of developing dizziness or vertigo when looking down. The difference is subtle, and can only be properly diagnosed by a trained clinician.

What Is Vertigo?

Vertigo is a medical condition that is related to dizziness. There are two types of vertigo: subjective and objective. In subjective vertigo, the sufferer feels like he or she is moving or swaying. In objective vertigo, the sufferer feels like objects are moving around him or her.

Vertigo is a balance disorder with many possible causes. True medical vertigo stems from a problem in the inner ear or brain structures. However, the term can also be used to describe similar symptoms that have a different cause. Both types can be exacerbated by heights, particularly when looking down from a ledge.

Illyngophobia or Vertigo?

Illyngophobia is the fear of developing vertigo when looking down from heights. However, the phobia itself can induce many of the same symptoms of dizziness, shaking, nausea and vomiting. Therefore, it is not unusual for those who suffer from illyngophobia to believe that they have legitimately developed vertigo. It is important to receive proper medical testing to determine the cause of your symptoms.

Illyngophobia in Popular Culture

The best known example of illyngophobia in popular culture is Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. In the film, a police detective develops vertigo after seeing a fellow officer fall to his death during a rooftop chase. Throughout the film, the detective's condition is shown to be psychological in nature and he is able to conquer the vertigo at the end, albeit at a terrible price.

Complications of Illyngophobia

Many occupations require employees to work at significant heights. Those with severe illyngophobia may be unable to work even inside an office on a high floor. City dwellers may also be limited in their choice of apartments, as they may be unwilling to live at great height.

As in the film example above, if you suffer from illyngophobia, you may develop the symptoms of medical vertigo. This can further increase your anxiety, as you now believe that you have the disorder you feared. This could lead to hyponchondriasis, or fear of illness.

Causes of Illyngophobia

Illyngophobia is often, although not always, caused by a negative experience with heights. Perhaps you experienced dizziness or panic while on a ledge or rooftop, possibly caused by leaning out too far. Or you might have watched someone else struggle with vertigo or even falling.

Like acrophobia, or fear of heights, illyngophobia may be an extreme variation on a normal evolutionary survival mechanism. Most people report some level of discomfort with heights. Gibson and Walk's famous 1960 "Visual Cliff" experiments, detailed in "Acrophobia," showed that babies are reluctant to cross a thick pane of glass covering an apparent drop off. It does not appear that the babies showed symptoms of vertigo, however.

Treating Illyngophobia

Like other specific phobias, illyngophobia can be treated using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is among the most common. You will be taught positive messages to replace your negative thoughts about being at heights. You will learn to relax yourself as you confront progressively more challenging heights through a process known as systematic desensitization. Although the fear of vertigo can be life-limiting, treatment is generally successful. See "Finding a Therapist" for tips on choosing a mental health practitioner.


American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. "The 'visual cliff'." Scientific American. 1960. 202, 67-71. December 8, 2008. Retrieved from http://www.wadsworth.com/psychology_d/templates/student_resources/0155060678_rathus/ps/ps05.html

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