1. Definition of Acrophobia
Acrophobia (from Greek meaning "summit") is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. It is a particular case of specific phobias, which share both causes and options for treatment.
Acrophobia can be dangerous, as sufferers can experience a panic attack in a high place and become too agitated to get themselves down safely. Some acrophobics also suffer from urges to throw themselves off high places, despite not being suicidal.
"Vertigo" is often used, incorrectly, to describe the fear of heights, but it is more accurately described as a spinning sensation.
2. Causes of acrophobia
The most widely accepted explanation is that acrophobia stems from fear — fear of falling and being injured or killed: this is a normal and rational fear that most people have (people without such fears would die out).
A phobia occurs when fear is taken to an extreme — possibly through conditioning or a traumatic experience. Then, the mind seeks to protect the body from further trauma in the future, and elicits an extreme fear of the situation — in this case, heights.
This extreme fear can be counter-productive in normal everday life though, with some sufferers being afraid to go up a flight of stairs or a ladder, or to stand on a chair, table, (etc.).
Some neurologists question the prevailing wisdom and argue that acrophobia is caused by dysfunction in maintaining balance and that the anxiety is both well founded and secondary. According to the dysfunction model, a normal person uses both vestibular and visual cues appropriately in maintaining balance.
An acrophobic overrelies on visual signals whether because of inadequate vestibular function or incorrect strategy. Locomotion at a high elevation requires more than normal visual processing. The visual cortex becomes overloaded and the person becomes confused. Research is underway at several clinics. Some proponents of the alternate view of acrophobia warn that it may be ill-advised to encourage acrophobics to expose themselves to height without first resolving the vestibular issues.
There is little or no distinction between this phobia and bathophobia, fear of depths; both involve fear of falling.
People who suffer from acrophobia often become habituated to particular high places, i.e. they lose their fear of them, but the fear returns when they go somewhere new. A surprising number of rock-climbers suffer intermittent acrophobia.
Acrophobia can be dangerous, because sufferers can experience a panic attack in a high place and be unable to get themselves out of it. Some acrophobics also suffer from urges to throw themselves off high places, despite not being in general suicidal.
Curiously, there is no correlation between fear of flying and acrophobia. The difference seems to be that when flying, there is no visual correction between the aircraft and the ground beneath: fearless and successful pilots who are acrophobic have reported that their fear suddenly emerges if such a connection is made, e.g. by flying near a cliff or a tall building.
Acrophobia is a specific-object phobia and like most such phobia is relatively easily addressed by behaviour therapies such as systematic desensitization or flooding. It is probable that acrophobic rock-climbers have in effect undergone a successful self-administered course of such behaviour therapy.
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For a list of all phobias see List of phobias.
For more information on coping with phobias, try the National Phobics Society (08444 775 774, www.phobics-society.org.uk); Brain Train (0845 450 2251, www.brain-train.co.uk); or Val and Paul Lynch (01323 505263, www.the-heart-centre.com).