Mental Challenges

How To Overcome Your Fear of Heights

Photo: Stocksy / Ryan Tuttle
Millions of people share a struggle to overcome a fear of heights. In fact, as many as 6 percent of all people suffer with some form of acrophobia, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It's important to remember that everyone feels vulnerable at times and in their own ways.

The degree to which discomfort, apprehension, anxiety, or fear can manifest and cause impact will vary between individuals and in relation to different kinds of struggles or scenarios. Plus, having certain fears and phobias might also be more prevalent in those who suffer from generalized anxiety or chronic stress and who tend to be more panicky by nature.

While there are many types of phobias that exist (with “phobia” indicating there’s a deep-rooted fear with exposure to a certain experience or thing), fear of heights, or acrophobia, is at the top of the list, and people who struggle with it may feel scared in situations that force them to be above ground.

“Heights can be scary because from an evolutionary standpoint, they threaten survival, which is why it’s a more common fear in the general population,” says Kassondra Glenn, LMSW, licensed social worker and therapeutic consultant at Diamond Rehab.

Even just thinking about it, through visualization or virtual means, can get the heart racing, too. Hands may get moist and hot, and you might feel lightheaded or woozy, with a spiked heart rate, excess production of cortisol (the “stress” hormone) and lots and lots of jitters.

How To Know if You Have a Fear of Heights

The degree to which you’re afraid and its influence in your day-to-day life and well-being will determine whether or not you have a phobia as well as how to overcome fear of heights with the help of a professional.

For example, if you become sweaty and anxious as you look down at the ground when standing on top of a mountain or sitting in preparation for “jumping off” on a zipline or acrobatics course, you probably don’t have a fear of heights and just a case of butterflies, which are common and usually pass quickly.

On the contrary, those who are particularly sensitive to and fearful of heights (with a level of severity that would be classified as a phobia) find it to be disruptive to their daily lives. For some, learning how to overcome fear of heights could be life-changing, opening the doors for new opportunities while decreasing chronic stress and anxiety levels.

What might this look like? Apprehension may come with little mundane things, such as riding up the elevator. Similarly, you may be particularly frightened by roller-coasters or balconies, and you might not be able to make it on board an airplane for a flight, if your fear of heights is too extreme and hard to overcome.

“It can be easier to avoid heights or try and suppress fear, rather than confront a fear of heights; however, many people find themselves missing out on experiences or struggling with other aspects of mental health due to fear of heights and so want to make a change,” she says.

Luckily, therapy can help, and with dedication, patience and practice, it’ll become easier. Certain therapies and techniques are quite beneficial and most popularly used as treatment to help lessen anxiety and fear and learn how to overcome fear of heights for a more flexible and capable lifestyle.

How To Overcome a Fear of Heights

The greatest challenge with treatment is that in order to heal and reduce fear and uneasiness, direct exposure to what it is exactly that’s causing all the nerves (in this case, heights).

Facing your fears isn’t easy and requires bravery and the ability to let go so that you can be open to positive changes and experiencing things that are new and different—and way outside your comfort zone.

There are two types of therapies that are most efficient for treatment and can speed the process for overcoming a fear of heights. “Exposure therapy is gradual exposure to the source of fear, which helps people adapt to the situation and become more comfortable in it,” she says.

“In fear of heights, this may look like working with a trained therapist on creating situations where fear of heights is present,” she explains. In these situations, you’ll work through the fear together by taking on IRL challenges, such as riding a roller coaster, rock-climbing or walking on a trapeze, for example.

You’ll directly face your fears and experience what it’s like to be higher up and above ground. Another therapy that’s helpful is CBT therapy, especially as an initial treatment or first step, prior to using exposure therapy. (You likely need both for learning how to overcome fear of heights.)

“CBT therapy focuses on thoughts, feelings and behaviors,” she says. So, it’s more of a “virtual reality” exposure, with an emphasis on changing old thinking patterns and breaking through mental blocks.

CBT therapy also uses visualization, the imagination and the senses to change how the mind and body views and feels towards the fearful situation, with a goal of reducing apprehension and making it less automatic in response to stimuli. Over time, you’ll notice progress in training your brain in new ways of thinking so it no longer gets that knee jerk reaction and frightened feeling, in the future.

Tips To Remember When Tackling Your Fear of Heights

For starters, don’t bottle up your emotions and keep everything in. Find a few confidants to share your experience and struggles with, and let them be a supportive aid along your journey. “I would suggest that someone struggling with a fear of heights talk with supportive people about their experience, such as trusted friends or loved ones,” she suggests.

“Group therapy can also be helpful in that it provides a community that’s bonded over shared experiences,” she adds. It’s easier to process fear and overcome it when you don’t feel alone in your fear, as if you’re the only one working through it that exists and you’re all by yourself.

Group therapy signifies that fear isn’t unique, and there are people who feel just as scared and are working through obstacles, too. And together, you can hold one another accountable.

You also don’t want to be impatient and give up due to frustration. Overcoming your fear will take time and require hard work, so don’t erroneously expect immediate results.

“It is important not to put a strict timeline on overcoming a fear of heights and to also remember that everyone is unique in both the intensity of their fear and the time it may take to process and mitigate the fear,” she explains.

“In general, exposure therapy consists of five to twenty sessions, while the length of CBT is often adjusted based on need and on a case-by-case basis,” she says.

Avoid pushing yourself to the extreme. Instead, pace yourself based on how your body is feeling and responding, without comparing yourself to anyone else or having too high of expectations and standards.

“Therapy and overcoming fear should bring up discomfort, however it should not be completely dysregulating, and going too far too fast can be retraumatizing and/or make fear worse,” she says. Remember, the "right" pace is one that brings sustainable progress for long-lasting change.

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