Acrophobia, Causes & Treatment
Acrophobia, or the extreme fear of heights, can be paralyzing for someone with this fear. Though most people can rationally fear to fall and getting injured, acrophobia is often irrational and can elicit a strong emotional reaction such as panic attacks.
For example, someone with acrophobia may get a panic attack by watching a video of standing on a high-rise building. Even if they know, they are in a safe room.
So keep in consideration that untreated acrophobia can worsen and lead to panic attacks while watching television or even when you are sleeping.
Causes for Acrophobia
A phobia is an intense form of anxiety regarding a specific stimulus. It has been suggested that phobias can be from two reasons: either previous personal experience or from the learned experience of watching negative experiences related to the stimulus. Acrophobia is no different in its origin.
However, psychologists have not been able to conclude on any definite causes of phobias, including acrophobia. Meaning, someone who has acrophobia may not have any personal traumatic experiences with falling at all or seen any traumatic negative experiences. Conversely, those that have incurred a traumatic fall from a high location do not necessarily develop acrophobia.
Acrophobia and Panic Attacks
Despite not knowing a definite cause, what is known is that individuals with acrophobia experience intense emotional reaction or panic attacks when encountering heights.
This fear can manifest as a racing heartbeat, being seemingly paralyzed, shortness of breath or hyperventilation, sudden urge to urinate, sudden crying, sudden anger, and/or restlessness. Acrophobics may experience a combination of the above symptoms when nearing heights. During their panic attack, they may also claim that they “can’t move” or “can’t breathe.”
If someone you know experiences such an acrophobic reaction, it is crucial to make them feel that they are safe. Remind them to breathe and distract them with something that calms their anxiety until the stimulus subsides. Mindfulness and grounding techniques can work well.
Encourage them to focus their gaze on something closer, like your face or counting items in their bag.
Reassure them that they are safe until the stimulus is gone.
Treatment of Acrophobia
There are two natural and therapeutic ways to treat acrophobia: exposure therapy and psychotherapy.
In exposure therapy, a technique of behavior therapy, the acrophobic client is slowly exposed to their stimulus; in this case, heights, in small doses. This would be done in a controlled environment with a mental health professional monitoring closely.
The key is to get the client slowly desensitized to what they fear. For example, for acrophobia, it could simply start by looking at a picture of someone on a roller coaster. Or it would be looking at a point-of-view video of the view from a high place.
Then, the person would slowly work their way to confront their fear. For example, from standing next to a balcony, then one foot on the balcony, and on and so forth until they can stand on the balcony and look out without an intense surge of fear or panic attack.
The kind of therapy you should be looking for if you think this is the right solution for you is cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. An option worth your consideration would be Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy or REBT.
In psychodynamic therapy or dynamic-analytical psychotherapy, the acrophobic client would participate in talk therapy to discover their reasons for why they fear heights on such a profound or dysfunctioning level. They will analyze the client’s thinking when they see heights. Then, the therapist and the acrophobic client will work together to help reconstruct the cognitive process when faced with the stimulus.