Fear of heights (acrophobia) is one of the relatively frequently diagnosed anxiety disorders. This type of phobia can manifest itself already in early childhood. We explain what causes fear of heights and how to deal with associated symptoms.

What is fear of heights?

It is a specific phobia associated with fear of being in high altitudes and falling. For every person, anxiety is one of the defensive mechanisms that arise in case of emergency.

Feeling of fear and mild discomfort, such as during a ride on a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, a walk on a bridge suspended over a chasm, and observing the surroundings from a high building’s observation deck, is a completely natural experience, but some people have fear just by thinking about such attractions. Moreover, they may also have problems with staying in enclosed spaces at high floors of buildings or accessing balconies.

It is fear of heights that, in addition to a feeling of panic, also causes somatic symptoms typical of anxiety disorders. Although acrophobia can manifest itself already in early childhood, it does not have to accompany us throughout our lives. Anxiety disorders associated with staying at high altitudes in case of several-year-old children are related to the action of natural adaptive mechanisms.

However, it turns out that acrophobia more often affects people who have experienced trauma related to falling, for example, from a swing, a carousel, or a tree in childhood. Regardless of the underlying cause of the phobia, it must be treated correctly. In most cases, we can deal with it ourselves and overcome the limits of fear. In particularly severe cases of acrophobia, psychotherapy may be necessary.

What are the symptoms of fear of heights?

The symptoms of fear of heights are quite specific. They are only slightly different from the symptoms that occur with other types of phobias. A person suffering from fear of heights feels fear only in situations of real danger. Symptoms of fear of heights may include overwhelming fear that prevents any movement or causes motor hyperactivity, which in some cases is a real threat to the person with acrophobia and their surroundings. Among the relatively specific symptoms of fear of heights are:

  • feeling of lack of air
  • body trembling
  • pounding heart
  • rapid breathing
  • excessive sweating
  • dizziness.

These are typical somatic symptoms that accompany various phobias. Sometimes, the overwhelming feeling of fear can lead to an inability to make any movement and cause a temporary “paralysis” of muscles. In some people, fear of heights can cause hyperactivity.

How to overcome fear of heights?

Acrophobia can be overcome, among other things, by using the “small steps” method, which involves gradual and controlled exposure to the fear. In cases of particularly severe symptoms of fear of heights, specialized therapy is often necessary, which can help a person start functioning normally.