Fear of Heights, Acrophobia, Dizziness, Vertigo

The fear of heights is one of the most common anxieties or phobias in the world. Like most phobias, it has a special name, Acrophobia. Acrophobia is commonly confused with Agoraphobia because of the similarity in names. But Agoraphobia is actually a fear of wide open spaces and areas where an individual lacks control. Interestingly many agoraphobics are also, as part of the same condition Acrophobic or scared of heights. This is probably due to the fact that high buildings and skyscrapers, as well as cliff tops, have limited easy exit routes. This lack of control is often important to the Agoraphobic.

Also, the fear of heights is often called Vertigo. This is completely wrong. Vertigo is symptomatic of inner ear disorders and other medical problems associated with balance. It often includes feelings of dizziness, swaying or spinning and can occur anywhere, not just at height. Interestingly it seems that some people suffering from anxiety disorders such as agoraphobia and panic attacks may be predisposed to balance disorders. In a British Medical Journal (BMJ) editorial entitled: Treating dizziness with vestibular rehabilitation it is stated that "On the other hand, recent research indicates that panic and agoraphobia may often be triggered by an underlying dysfunction of balance." It suggests that the effect of balance issues such as dizziness may lead to anxiety is patients that believe their symptoms are down to brain tumours or other serious health problems. In these cases vestibular rehabilitation (basically exercises to improve the functioning of the balance mechanism) may be beneficial in reducing dizziness and anxiety or panic symptoms associated with it.

Many people have a fear of heights that stops them looking strait down from balconies or directly over cliffs. For the most part this kind of fear is appropriate and normal and does not really infringe on quality of life. When it gets more serious than this, i.e. when people are unable or unwilling to do the things they want or need to do in their daily life (like work in an office block, for instance) some action needs to be taken.

It is worth investigating whether any physical problems exist with your balance mechanism in the inner-ear. It is my personal belief, although not established medical fact as far as I am aware, that looking at things from a height may cause disorientation in people with poor balance mechanisms as there is little with which to reference the height.

Apart from that, if this is a simple phobia, i.e. if this is your only phobia, then a course of cognitive and behavioural therapy will probably serve you best. Graded exposure with healthy thought processes can probably much improve the problem. After all, you are very unlikely actually to be in real danger of falling in an office block!

Other therapies such as flooding exist, but I don’t particularly recommend them!

5 Replies to “Fear of Heights, Acrophobia, Dizziness, Vertigo”

  1. My problem is Agoraphobia (fear if open spaces). I’m a runner and the track that I run on is set in a larger area. I get very lighthead and a little out of control in the areas that is more open then the other. I hate it, and tried everything that I could think of to get over this problem. The problem started about 6 years ago, and it seems to be getting worst. I’ve been running for about 30 years and I love it, but this problem is ruining my desire to run.

  2. Hmmm P.Lewis when I hear that certain physical surroundings make someone feel worse I rather suspect psychology is not to blame. It seems that what changes is not inside you but outside in the environment. I think your vestibular system (balance system) is ever so slightly faulty and when your points of reference change, in a wide open space, you feel worse. I would experiment with vestibular suppressants like OTC travel sickness medication and see if it mkes a difference. I will write a post about the different vestibular suppressants and doses etc….feel free to reply to this and harass me if I haven’t posted it in a week or so!

  3. Perhaps you can help me with this problem. I’ve been mountain walking for many years. I can stand at the top of a sheer drop and have no problems whatsoever, so long as I have somewhere safe to retreat to. But in recent years something has changed. If I am actually positioned on that sheer drop in an exposed position where it’s possible I could fall, I begin to feel dizzy and I freeze. I can move neither up nor down except with difficulty. I know, when it’s happening, that it’s irrational. What is going on please?

  4. When I get this feeling I want to get ‘down’ as fast as possible. It’s scary, it’s not like I am suicidal. If I ride a roller coaster I get the feeling that I just want to jump out, which would be very dangerous. If I get near a cliff I have to run the other way. I can’t take it!

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