Fear of heights: perhaps, if you’ve broken through the other big fears in your life, it’s your final frontier. There are few fears as petrifying, as tenacious…or as common. Few people on the planet live totally acrophobia-free lives, and we’re not even sure those guys are lucky! After all, there’s far more to this than meets the eye.
It was the Greeks that first put a name to the phenomenon. In Greek, “acron” means heights and “phobos” means fear. Because fear of heights is such a basic element of the human experience–and so important for the body’s instinctual mechanisms to enforce–almost everyone has it in at least a mild form. Researchers are reasonably sure that acrophobia is an evolutionary trait, which nudges our delicate human bodies away from the steep drops that could harm us. It keeps you safely away from the edges of tall buildings, cliffs and bridges (unless, of course, you’re a BASE jumper). Therefore, even the tiniest baby expresses a natural aversion to high places.
Our natural aversion to heights is why roller coasters exist. It’s why you get butterflies in your stomach at the top of a ferris wheel. It makes steep skiing exhilarating, puts the thrill in a hot air balloon ride, delivers a satisfying rush in the trampoline gym and generally puts a little bit more spice in your life.
Some folks, however, experience a more extreme form of this phobia. For these people, it’s almost a physical impossibility to drive across bridges, walk near a big window in a tall building or climb a ladder.
Since acrophobia is an actual condition, it has actual symptoms. You’ve almost certainly experienced these somewhere along the adventuresome course of your life.
Breathlessness, dizziness, light-headedness, vertigo, excessive sweating, muscle tension, tremors, heart palpitations, stomach cramps, nausea and headaches.
Panic; acute anxiety. In people who experience severe acrophobia, these symptoms can be triggered by the act of standing on a chair. (If that’s not you, bless your lucky stars! People in that category often require years of therapy and anti-anxiety medication in order to live full lives.)
So–without further ado–let’s see how we can solve the “problem” of acrophobia with a can-do mindset. Here are five ways to tackle the challenge intelligently.
1. Prepare yourself.
If you know that you are going to be in a situation that will expose you to acrophobic symptoms, take time to prepare yourself for the encounter.
2. Take it slow.
Back in the bad old days, psychologists treated phobias by (literally, in the case of fear of swimming) throwing people into the deep end. As you can imagine, this particular technique freaked people out to the extent of permanent damage. Patients’ phobias were considerably worse on the other end of that–and, often, the sufferer was saddled with severe additional trauma.
In the modern era, we’ve done away with that poppycock. Enlightened psychologists still recommend that people confront their fear, but that they approach it steadily, at their own pace. To proceed, set small goals–like, for instance, working an inch closer to a certain balcony railing every day. Success happens sooner than you’d think.
3. Visualize success.
With eyes closed, visualize in detail all of the security precautions that will surround you in the situation you’re about to enter. Feel the solidity of the barrier; feel the comforting hug of the harness; in your mind’s eye, slide your hand along the railing. Let these feelings sink into your subconscious, where they can help you when your heart starts pounding.
Anxiety-inducing situations have the unnerving tendency to make people forget to breathe–and not breathing makes anxiety so much worse. Make sure you get plenty of oxygen to the brain by taking deep, regular belly breaths.
5. Take it easy on yourself.
Acrophobia doesn’t dissolve in a day. Allow yourself the time and space you need to work on this challenge, without pressure or judgment. Be as gentle with yourself as you’d be with a beloved friend, and allow a less-acrophobic self to develop organically. You owe yourself that self-kindness!
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