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the fear of heights
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What is the fear of heights?
The medical definition for the fear of heights is “acrophobia.” So what exactly is acrophobia? It is an abnormal and persistent fear of heights. The word “acrophobia” is derived from the Greek words “acron” (height) and “phobos” (fear). Acrophobia, the fear of heights, is a natural fear. To a certain extent, there is nothing wrong with having a fear of heights. It is a healthy God given defense against doing things like walking off a cliff. The problem is when the natural healthy instinct becomes a morbid (unsound or even paranoia) fear. This type of unhealthy fear, acrophobia, is usually overwhelming and debilitating (it will freeze you in your tracks). If you suffer from a fear of heights, don't think that you are alone. Thousands of people suffer from acrophobia including some famous people such as Isaac Asimov, John Madden, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, and Whoopi Goldberg. I receive many emails from people who share their experiences with me. Many people really identify with the main character of my book (see link below for more information)
Symptoms of the fear of heights:
Many people with the fear of heights experience breathlessness, dizziness, excessive sweating, nausea, dry mouth, feeling sick, shaking, heart palpitations, and the inability to speak or think clearly. Other symptoms of acrophobia also include a fear of dying, becoming mad or losing control, a sensation of detachment from reality or even a full blown anxiety attack.
What causes the fear of heights?
Many psychologists think that the fear of heights enters your life at some point in your past. There was probably an event that happened to you that linked heights or high levels with some type of emotional trauma. They think that the original event may have been a real-life scare of some kind that you no longer consciously remember. They think the condition can also be triggered by multiple events like seeing something in movies, TV, or perhaps even seeing someone else experience trauma involving heights.
There are several “cures” for overcoming acrophobia:
• positive thinking
• gradual desensitization
It is important to realize that drugs do not cure acrophobia. They simply temporarily suppress the symptoms using chemicals. The side effects of the drugs may be worse than a fear of heights. Never take drugs without a doctor's perscription and be sure you know exactly what the drug will do to your body.
Hypnosis also does not cure acrophobia. It also suppresses the symptoms but instead of using chemicals you're allowing someone to temporarily control your mind.
In my book “The Seagull Who Was Afraid To Fly” I used the gradual desensitivitation method to cure the seagull's fear of heights. How does this method work?
• You have to go to an area where you experience the fear of heights (this can be something as simple as a high dive board at a pool). Starting quite far back from the edge (where you feel no fear) slowly start walking toward the edge. Stop walking as soon as you feel any fear. Pay attention to what you are feeling and make yourself aware of those feelings. Don't run away from what you're feeling at this point and don't deny or pretend that those feelings are not there. Don't go any farther towards the edge, just stay where you are. Don't give up on your desire to get over your fear of heights. Accept the fact that you don't have to do it right now. You can choose not to go any closer to the edge at this point in time.
• The next time you repeat this process start from the same place you started the first time. Once again, stop walking as soon as you feel any fear. Pay attention again to what you are feeling and make yourself aware of those feelings. As with the first time, don't run away from what you're feeling at this point and don't deny or pretend that those feelings aren't there. You must consciously make a choice - a choice that you are in complete control. You can choose to continue walking toward the edge, leave, or stay right where you are. It is your choice and you are in control.
• Start the process again from the same place you started the first time. The moment will come when you will be able to simply accept what you are feeling, even though you may have no desire to continue on towards the edge. When you accept what you are feeling, where you are standing, you'll find that the fear fades. Every time you repeat this process, stop whenever you feel the symptoms coming on, identify the feelings, locate where you are, and allow yourself feel the as you do, and never lose your resolve to get closer to the edge. Little by little, using this process, you'll arrive close to the edge and you won't be overwhelmed by the fear of heights.
Would you like some information about my book
“The Seagull Who Was Afraid To Fly?”
Simply click on the picture to the left.
If this website page, or the book “The Seagull Who Was Afraid To Fly” was able to help you in any way, please send me an email and let me know about your experience.
© 07/2006 by Steven P. Wickstrom All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the author.
For the online game, see Acrophobia (game). For the amusement park ride, see Acrophobia (ride).
Not to be confused with Fear of falling.
Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear or phobia of heights, especially when one is not particularly high up. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort, that share both similar causes and options for treatment.
Most people experience a degree of natural fear when exposed to heights, known as the fear of falling. On the other hand, those who have little fear of such exposure are said to have a head for heights. A head for heights is advantageous for those hiking or climbing in mountainous terrain and also in certain jobs e.g. steeplejacks or wind turbine mechanics.
People with acrophobia can experience a panic attack in high places and become too agitated to get themselves down safely. Approximately 2–5% of the general population suffers from acrophobia, with twice as many women affected as men. The term is from the Greek: ἄκρον, ákron, meaning "peak, summit, edge" and φόβος, phóbos, "fear".
Traditionally, acrophobia has been attributed, like other phobias, to conditioning or a traumatic experience. Recent studies have cast doubt on this explanation; a fear of falling, along with a fear of loud noises, is one of the most commonly suggested inborn or "non-associative" fears. The newer non-association theory is that a fear of heights is an evolved adaptation to a world where falls posed a significant danger. The degree of fear varies and the term phobia is reserved for those at the extreme end of the spectrum. Researchers have argued that a fear of heights is an instinct found in many mammals, including domestic animals and humans. Experiments using visual cliffs have shown human infants and toddlers, as well as other animals of various ages, to be reluctant in venturing onto a glass floor with a view of a few meters of apparent fall-space below it. While an innate cautiousness around heights is helpful for survival, an extreme fear can interfere with the activities of everyday life, such as standing on a ladder or chair, or even walking up a flight of stairs.
A possible contributing factor is a dysfunction in maintaining balance. In this case the anxiety is both well founded and secondary. The human balance system integrates proprioceptive, vestibular and nearby visual cues to reckon position and motion. As height increases, visual cues recede and balance becomes poorer even in normal people. However, most people respond by shifting to more reliance on the proprioceptive and vestibular branches of the equilibrium system.
An acrophobic, however, continues to over-rely on visual signals whether because of inadequate vestibular function or incorrect strategy. Locomotion at a high elevation requires more than normal visual processing. The visual cortex becomes overloaded resulting in confusion. Some proponents of the alternative view of acrophobia warn that it may be ill-advised to encourage acrophobics to expose themselves to height without first resolving the vestibular issues. Research is underway at several clinics.
Confusion with vertigo
"Vertigo" is often used (incorrectly) to describe a fear of heights, but it is more accurately a spinning sensation that occurs when one is not actually spinning. It can be triggered by looking down from a high place, by looking straight up at a high place or tall object, or even by watching something (i.e. a car or a bird) go past at high speed, but this alone does not describe vertigo. True vertigo can be triggered by almost any type of movement (e.g. standing up, sitting down, walking) or change in visual perspective (e.g. squatting down, walking up or down stairs, looking out of the window of a moving car or train). Vertigo is called height vertigo when the sensation of vertigo is triggered by heights.
There have been a number of studies into using virtual reality therapy for acrophobia. 
Many different types of medications are used in the treatment of phobias like fear of heights, including traditional anti-anxiety drugs such as benzodiazepines, and newer options like antidepressants and beta-blockers.
Some desensitization treatments produce short-term improvements in symptoms. Long-term treatment success has been elusive.
True acrophobia is uncommon.
A related, milder form of visually triggered fear or anxiety is called visual height intolerance. Up to one-third of people may have some level of visual height intolerance.
Society and culture
In the Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo, John "Scottie" Ferguson, played by James Stewart, has to resign from the police force after an incident which causes him to develop both acrophobia and vertigo. The word "vertigo" is only mentioned once, while "acrophobia" is mentioned several times. Early on in the film, Ferguson faints while climbing a stepladder. There are numerous references throughout the film to fear of heights and falling.
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