Individuals with acrophobia may also feel that escaping from the height would be difficult or impossible, with a fear of embarrassment of displaying symptoms of anxiety elicited by the situation. This fear becomes maladaptive when it impedes the individual’s ability to engage in daily activities.
How Does Acrophobia Develop?
Amongst the general population, approximately 28% of adults (32% women, 25% men) struggle with acrophobia, and 34% of prepubertal children aged 8-10. With such rates, acrophobia is one of the more common phobias, but it can still be debilitating in extreme cases.
Fearfulness is the predominant trait amongst those with acrophobia, where exposure to a triggering situation leads to severe anxiety or panic attacks.
Acrophobia could be comorbid with other anxious or depressive disorders, such as panic disorder or generalized anxiety disorder. Other traits include high neuroticism, low extraversion, and behavioral inhibition.
Traumatic events in childhood can be a risk factor for developing acrophobia. Parental over-protection could also be an influence, along with parental separation or death.
Signs and Triggers of Acrophobia
The signs of acrophobia manifest themselves similarly to an anxiety/panic attack when an individual feels exposed to a threatening stimulus. The general symptoms, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, include four (or more) of the following:
- Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- Trembling or shaking
- Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- Feeling of choking
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Nausea or abdominal distress
- Feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- Derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- Fear of losing control or “going crazy”
- Fear of dying
- Paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensation)
- Chills or hot flushes.
Individuals will also present with:
- Intense or uncontrollable fear of being in a situation involving heights
- Anxiety anticipating a future exposure to heights
- Avoidance of the object or situation
- Distressing symptoms interfere with daily functioning.
Acrophobia and Air Travel
Though acrophobia is a common phobia, it can be debilitating to function healthily with distressing symptoms interfering with obligation, especially on air travel. Individuals may dread an upcoming journey and catastrophic what could occur while on the flight.
A plane could catalyze those struggling with anxiety and phobias. Often, unprepared individuals tend to have an episode of panic during the journey.
As with any dread, it is crucial to have proper preparation and a means of tackling the obstacles ahead. Outlined below are some suggestions for ways to manage and treat acrophobia.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Medication
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a practical solution-focused therapeutic approach used to treat different phobias. In seeking treatment, the most effective ways of overcoming phobias are in three consecutive states:
- Flooding: where there is exposure to a ‘worst-case-scenario’ and the individual engages in relaxation
- Gradual exposure: with increasing intensity, expose the individual to threatening stimuli to gain tolerance to ‘threats.’
- Imaginal exposure: the individual imagines being in the feared situation and is guided through the situation to include stress management and relaxation techniques.
Along with therapeutic interventions, it may also be helpful to talk to your doctor about possible anti-anxiety or anti-depressive medications that could mitigate the distressing symptoms.
Things I can do to manage acrophobia
Seeking professional help would offer you the best chance of overcoming acrophobia long term. The tools gained through therapy are versatile and set you up to lead a life independent of outside influence.
Therapeutic lifestyle changes are also recommended, including regular sleep, exercise, and healthy meals. Physical health is correlated with mental health and reducing overall levels of anxiety and depression.
Contrary to popular belief, avoiding alcohol and recreational drugs does help with symptom management. Mood-altering substances (unless prescribed by a professional) could have an effect that worsens anxiety.
Learning relaxation techniques that are effective for you can help maintain a sense of calmness throughout your journey.
If you experience an episode of panic, the following may help in grounding yourself and de-escalation:
- Stop movement and block out outside sensory stimuli (close your eyes and have headphones on)
- Fix your line of sight onto something stationary and horizontal
- Distract yourself by naming items of a category for each letter of the alphabet
- Engage in deep, paced breathing
1. APA. (n.d.). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR). American Psychiatric Association. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://psychiatry.org/psychiatrists/practice/dsm
2. City of Milwaukee. (n.d.). Color Breathing Exercise for Stress Relief. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://city.milwaukee.gov/ImageLibrary/User/jkamme/EAP/Info-Library/MentalHealth_5QuickStressReduc.pdf
3. Kapfhammer, H., Fitz, W., Huppert, D., Grill, E., & Brandt, T. (2020, July 6). Visual height intolerance and acrophobia: Distressing partners for life. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5037147/#:~:text=According%20to%20DSM%2D5%2C%20the,%25%3B%20men%201.1%20%25
4. Wühr, M., Huppert, D., & Brandt, T. (2020, December). Acrophobia and visual height intolerance: advances in epidemiology and mechanisms. ResearchGate | Find and share research. Retrieved December 12, 2022, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/341578323_Acrophobia_and_visual_height_intolerance_advances_in_epidemiology_and_mechanisms