Free Fall: Acrophobia, Fear of Heights

Heights are a pretty understandable fear. Lots of people are uncomfortable looking down from high places, or even getting up there in the first place. But for some, that fear cripples them.

It’s called acrophobia. It’s an extreme and irrational fear of heights, especially when one isn’t especially high up. The word comes from the Greek akron which means peak, summit, or edge and phobos or fear. It belongs to a specific set of phobias that are known as space and motion discomforts.


Origins of Acrophobia

Traditionally, it’s assumed that acrophobia arises like all other phobias. A sufferer has undergone some sort of conditioning or trauma that instills fear in them. However, recent studies are beginning to disagree.

The new theory is called non-association. It states that a fear of heights is inborn for humans. It would have evolved as an adaptation to a world where a fall would pose a significant danger to us. Researchers argue that similar instincts have been found in multiple other species of mammals. This including those that have been domesticated.

Most of the experiments conducted have used visual cliffs. These setups were developed by Eleanor J. Gibson and Richard D. Walk in 1960. They involve a sheet of Plexiglas covering a slope with a checkerboard pattern on it. The slope is about 4 feet deep at the end. It was initially designed to measure depth perception in infants.

However, studies have shown that infants and toddlers, as well as other mammals, are reluctant to venture onto the Plexiglas when they perceive the drop.


Symptoms and Treatments

Fear of heights can affect people in different degrees. The term acrophobia should be reserved for those whose fear affects their everyday life. The most affected can have a panic attack from simple things like climbing stepladders or ascending staircases.

Studies estimate that approximately 2%-5% of the world’s population suffers from severe acrophobia. Women are twice as likely to be affected as men.

Treatments are similar to those for other specific phobias. Exposure therapy, behavioral-cognitive therapy, and medication are all viable options. There have also been studies on whether virtual reality could help with the condition.


Acrophobia in Media

Fear of heights is often exploited in film. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in 1958 involves a police officer that must retire after a traumatic incident that left him suffering from acrophobia and severe vertigo. In the 2018 film Skyscraper, a security expert has to get into a burning skyscraper, 225 stories high. Many of the film’s scenes are frightening because he’s obviously dangling very high in the air.

In the real world, some people seek heights as a thrill. The first free-fall amusement park ride in the world is named for acrophobia. It’s located at Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell, Georgia and has been operating since 2001.


Natural Fear?

Whether or not the fear of heights is natural, it is very common. And though sufferers of acrophobia can be affected in their daily lives, there is no shame in the fear. Perhaps it could be considered a gift of evolution, to keep us out of danger.

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