Acrophobia is an intense fear of heights. If a person has acrophobia, being high up or thinking about heights may cause them to have a panic attack.
For this reason, a person with acrophobia will actively avoid situations that involve being high up off the ground.
Keep reading to learn more about the causes and symptoms of acrophobia and the treatment options.
Acrophobia is an extreme fear of heights. It falls under the category of “specific phobias,” as it is a marked fear relating to a particular situation. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) includes height as a “natural environment type” of phobia.
Acrophobia is one of the most common fears. An older study states that up to 1 in 20 people may experience acrophobia.
Although a dislike or slight fear of heights is normal, people with acrophobia have an intense, irrational fear of heights. A person does not need to be especially high up for this severe anxiety to arise, and even the thought of being high up may trigger a panic attack.
A person with acrophobia will avoid situations in which they may be high up. For example, they may refuse to step onto a ladder, plane, bridge, or balcony. The fear can have a profound effect on a person’s life, as it may limit where they choose to go and what they can do.
Phobias typically develop in childhood. There is no single cause of acrophobia, but researchers have developed several theories as to why this fear might develop:
Evolutionary theories of phobias suggest that people are predisposed to fear certain things that might be dangerous. In this instance, falling from a height threatens survival. For this reason, evolutionary theorists believe that the fear of heights may be innate.
Behaviorist theories relating to phobias suggest that people develop a fear through interactions with their environment. For instance:
Observation: A child who observes their parents or caregivers experiencing fear around heights may develop the same fear.
Trauma: A person who has had or witnessed someone else have a bad experience with heights may develop acrophobia.
Classical Conditioning: If a person has a bad experience, such as falling out of a tree, they may associate this experience with heights. The person then learns to associate heights with falling, leading them to feel scared the next time they face a similar situation.
As a result of this learned association between height and falling, the behaviorist perspective suggests that a person would be afraid during future encounters with heights.
According to the DSM-5, for a person to have a phobia, the fear typically persists for 6 months or more.
The symptoms of acrophobia are similar to those of other anxiety disorders. A person may experience the following physical symptoms at the thought or sight of places that are high up:
A person with acrophobia may also demonstrate the following behaviors:
- avoiding scenarios that may expose them to heights
- avoiding talking about heights
- experiencing panic at the thought of having to be somewhere high up
- worrying about future scenarios in which they may encounter heights
- the fear of entrapment in a place that is high up
- avoiding media that centers around heights, in severe cases
If a person with acrophobia wishes to overcome it, they may consider one of the following treatments:
Exposure therapy involves gradually introducing a person to the situation, object, or other factor causing their fear and helping them adapt to it. It may involve just a few sessions of therapy, after which the end goal is the person confronting their fear.
Research is now examining the potential benefits that virtual reality can offer to treat phobias. A 2014 study found that virtual reality may be an effective way to treat acrophobia. The researchers behind the study suggest that three to four sessions may be sufficient to reduce this fear.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT involves a person working with a therapist or psychologist to help understand and change the way they think. In cases of phobias, this will mean how they think and feel about the thing causing fear.
A person will identify the irrational thoughts relating to the phobia and use techniques to replace the thoughts with more accurate ones.
CBT typically requires a number of sessions. Depending on their preference and insurance coverage, a person may choose to partake in CBT in a one-on-one or group setting.
Hypnotherapy involves helping a person enter a deeply relaxed state. The therapist will then use guided imagery and suggestive techniques to help a person unlearn the fear response to the phobia.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that hypnotherapy and hypnotism may be useful to help people overcome their acrophobia. However, more scientific research is necessary to understand the potential benefits of hypnotherapy.
Acrophobia is an extreme, irrational fear of heights.
Although there is no single cause of acrophobia, researchers theorize that it may be evolutionary or learned, or that a person may develop it following a traumatic experience.
A person with acrophobia may experience symptoms similar to those of a panic attack when they encounter or think about their fear.
If a person wishes to overcome acrophobia, they may consider therapies such as exposure therapy, CBT, or hypnotherapy.