Acrophobia is a very common illness, which refers to the irrational fear of heights. The medical term is coined from the Greek words “acron” meaning “height” and “phobos” meaning fear.
An individual with acrophobia feels some discomfort at higher elevations, like dizziness or nervousness when looking down from the top floor of a high rise building.
In those with severe instances of acrophobia, even thinking about crossing a bridge or seeing a photograph of a mountain and surrounding valley may trigger fear and anxiety. This distress negatively affects physical fitness and daily productivity.
Acrophobia sometimes develops in response to a traumatic experience involving heights.
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These could be incidents such as:
- Falling from a high place
- Watching someone else fall from a high place
- Having a panic attack or other negative experience while in a high place
However, phobias, including acrophobia, can also develop without a known cause. In these cases, genetics or environmental factors may play a role.
The characteristic physical symptoms of acrophobia include:
- Increased sweating, chest pain or tightness, and increased heartbeat at the sight or thought of high places
- Feeling sick or lightheaded when thinking about heights
- Shaking and trembling when faced with heights
- Feeling dizzy or like falling or losing balance when looking up at a high place, or down from a height
- Going out of the way to avoid heights, even if it makes daily life more difficult
The typical psychological symptoms of acrophobia comprise:
- Experiencing panic when seeing high places or thinking about having to go up to a high place
- Having extreme fear of being trapped somewhere high up
- Experiencing extreme anxiety and fear when having to climb stairs, look out a window, or drive along an overpass
- Worrying excessively about encountering heights in the future
Several health anomalies present with similar symptoms to a fear of heights that are at times misdiagnosed as acrophobia. These consist of:
Aerophobia, as the name suggests, refers to a fear of flying. It prompts an undue sense of nervousness and worry not only while travelling by flight, but even when visiting an airport or seeing an aeroplane from the terminal. In some cases, the person may only have aerophobia while in others, both aerophobia and acrophobia occur simultaneously.
This is a common condition characterised by frequent spinning sensations and the affected individual experiencing dizzy spells. Vertigo develops due to faults in the inner ear, which affect the stability and balance of the human body. While acrophobia – an irrational dread of heights and illyngophobia – a fear of acquiring vertigo itself trigger giddiness in people, the three disorders are quite different in nature.
Climacophobia is the fear of climbing a long flight of stairs or a steep slope. People with this condition are not scared of just looking at tall buildings, skyscrapers or simply driving by a mountain range, but are alarmed at the thought of having to climb up many steps of a considerable height or hiking a lofty hill or trail. Some patients with climacophobia also suffer from acrophobia.
Bathmophobia also refers to a fear of stairs and slopes but is not limited to terrifying feelings only while having to climb up to great heights. The mere sight of a mighty flight of stairs or an elevated mountain makes the person very scared and induces uneasy feelings, anxiety, nausea. A majority of individuals with bathmophobia also encounter acrophobia.
Diagnosis And Treatment
Phobias, including acrophobia, can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional, consisting of a team of qualifies psychologists, psychiatrists and counsellors. They help to determine an accurate diagnosis and analyse the extent to which the stressful mental condition affects day-to-day life.
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They scrutinize the patient’s thoughts and descriptions of events involving encountering heights, like trekking up a hill or taking the stairs to a very high up floor of a building. They also make note of any other mental health symptoms that the affected person may have experienced as well as how long they have been suffering from a fear of heights.
Treatment strategies for acrophobia involve specific procedures like exposure therapy, which encourages one to take part in real-time situations like climbing a ladder, to help overcome the fear of heights. Psychologists also engage the affected person in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), wherein the healthcare professional averts all negative thoughts associated with heightened areas and locations, in the mind of the patient.
Since acrophobia also causes an increased sense of panic, tension and worry, doctors prescribe some medications to help alleviate anxiety and apprehension associated with climbing heights and to calm the mind.