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Known by a number of names (Acrophobia, Allodoxaphobia, and Fear of Heights) this problem often significantly impacts the quality of life. This surprisingly common phobia causes countless people needless distress.

Understanding Acrophobia

Acrophobia is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. Acrophobia can cause panic attacks and keep the person from loved ones and business associates.  Although everyone experiences acrophobia in their own way and may have different symptoms, typical symptoms include shortness of breath, rapid breathing, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea, and overall feelings of dread.

Acrophobia can be dangerous, as in situations where the person has a panic attack in a high place and becomes too agitated to get themselves down safely. Some acrophobics also suffer from urges to throw themselves off high places, despite not being suicidal. 

A phobia is an anxiety disorder in which someone has an intense and irrational fear of certain objects or situations. As an introduction to fear, anxiety, and phobias, see the linked sections of this website. 

Causes of Acrophobia

The most widely accepted explanation is that acrophobia stems from the natural fear of falling and being injured or killed.  A phobia occurs when fear is taken to an extreme, due possibly to unintentional learning, generalization of the fear response, or the result of a traumatic experience.  Like other fears and phobias, acrophobia is created by the unconscious mind as a protective mechanism. At some point in your past, there was likely an event linking heights or high levels and emotional trauma.  Your mind then seeks to protect the body from further trauma in the future and elicits an extreme fear of the situation, in this case the fear of heights. 

Acrophobia can be counter-productive in normal everyday life, with some sufferers being afraid to go up a flight of stairs or a ladder, or to stand on a chair, table, (etc.).  The actual phobia manifests itself in different ways. Some sufferers experience it almost all the time, others just in response to direct stimuli. Everyone has their own unique formula for when and how to feel afraid and anxious.

Treatment of Acrophobia


Acrophobia can be treated in similar ways to other phobic and anxiety disorders, with a range of treatments including reality therapy and cognitive behavior therapy and the use of anti-anxiety medication.  Effective treatment is based on the assumption that acrophobia is a learned response to being in certain situations. This learned response is typically powerful, uncomfortable, embarrassing, inconvenient, and debilitating at times. And just as you can learn to have a particular response you can un-learn it.

Therapists can help people who have acrophobia to develop coping skills to manage their fear and anxiety. This involves understanding and adjusting thoughts and beliefs that help create the anxiety, learning and practicing specific behavioral social skills to increase confidence, and then slowly and gradually practicing these skills in real situations.

Cognitive behavior therapy is an approach where the person is encouraged to confront and change the specific thoughts and attitudes that lead to feelings of fear. Systematic desensitization, which is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), is a preferred behavioral technique used to treat acrophobia and other phobias. It based upon having the person relax, then imagine the components of the phobia, working from the least fearful to the most fearful. Gradual exposure to real life phobias has also been used with success to help people overcome their fears.  According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 75% of people with specific phobias overcome their fears through cognitive-behavioral therapy. 

Relaxation and stress relief techniques are frequently an accompaniment to other therapeutic approaches.  Relaxation techniques may include things like specific ways of breathing, muscle relaxation training, guided mental imagery, or soothing self-talk.

Anti-anxiety and anti-depressive medications are sometimes used to help relieve the symptoms associated with acrophobia. Though medication doesn't solve the whole problem, it can reduce anxiety so the person can more easily deal with their problem. Drugs such as tranquilizers and anti-depressants and drugs known as beta blockers may be used to treat the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as a pounding heart.

Hypnotherapy can also be effective.  This usually consists of systematic desensitization and other therapeutic techniques conducted under hypnosis by a clinical hypnotherapist.

Additional Information about Acrophobia


For more information about fear, phobias, and other mental health problems, please click on the linked websites listed below.

For a list of the many phobias please visit the page List of Phobias.

Wikipedia: Acrophobia
American Psychological Association
Anxiety Disorders Association of America

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