According to the people with beards and glasses, we are born with two fears: loud noises and falling. This, they say, proves that the fear of heights phobia is a result of evolution, and its formation is not a result of cultural conditioning or a traumatic event.
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Let’s have a look at one of the pieces of research they did in order to arrive at this conclusion. These academics discovered that infants and toddlers, as well as other mammals of varying ages, are unwilling to crawl across a piece of glass, beneath which they can see a drop of several meters. I wonder how much this scientific study cost.
I think they are missing the point; we are not born with acrophobia, the name for fear of heights. We are born with an instinct for self-preservation; and beyond that we can condition ourselves to either completely lose the fear, as in the case of a rock climber, or find ourselves totally paralysed by it, such as those manifesting an extreme fear of heights.
I think there’s another way to interpret the results of their findings. I think they demonstrate that infants and toddlers, as well as other mammals of varying ages, aren’t as stupid as the people whose names begin with “Professor”. The only thing any of this proves is that children and animals are capable of sensing a threat.
Since I got over my horrible needle phobia*, I don’t have an irrational fear of anything in particular. But if something seems like it might be dangerous, I’ll either avoid it completely or proceed carefully and with caution. Whether it’s being close to the edge of a drop, or having a dog I don’t know bounce up to me in a park with a ball in it’s mouth; I automatically know when it’s time to be cautious.
I am always amazed by the lack of progress made by these experiments and research projects. They seem to focus on finding the causes of problems, rather than solutions or useful information like how to overcome a fear of heights. If finding treatments and discovering how to get over a height phobia was the primary aim of the research, it might be worth the money. Paul McKenna once told me that with all the money that’s being spent researching the causes of fears and phobias, we could treat everybody in the country with the methods we already know work.
Fear of Heights is Not Like Other Phobias
Would you like to know about some useful discoveries that have been made regarding acrophobia? I thought you might. Incidentally, they also contain the key to how to overcome fear of heights. Well, in a moment I’m going to tell you about something that has pretty much been missed by the psychology profession in its entirety. But before I do, I want to discuss why is it important for people to seek treatment for a scared of heights phobia; more so than the other anxiety disorders.
I can remember meeting the husband of a friend of mine for the first time. We went to Bristol and as we strolled across the Downs towards Clifton Suspension Bridge, which was still a good hundred yards away, he suddenly stopped and refused to go any further.
Having spotted the elevation of the cliffs next to the bridge he was afraid. His response can only be described as an out-of-control negative reaction of extreme stress. This man was very agitated and the severity was obvious. It had affected him to the point where the colour had drained from his face, his breathing had quickened, and his eyes were like saucers. By all the indications he was just short of having an anxiety attack.
Now, it would be a great story if I could tell you how I collapsed his phobia of heights there and then. However, I don’t like treating friends for the simple reason that there may be things that they feel more comfortable discussing with someone who doesn’t know them outside of the treatment setting. But I did use some techniques with him and took his fear down from an 8 to about a 3*.
After this, I insisted he go and see a colleague of mine. He not only completely destroyed his acrophobia (fear of heights was just one of several phobias as it turned out), he also conquered his fear of flying and elevators. A few months later he sent me a couple of pictures of himself . In the first he was standing on the top level of a skyscraper with an amazing view of New York behind him, and in the second he was abseiling from the summit of a tower. A fear of heights also means a fear of skiing, and since the treatment he’s been able to hit the slopes for the first time in his life and thoroughly enjoyed it. Even something as simple as a trip to the theatre is far more enjoyable now. Before, he’d be constantly worried he’d be seated up in the gods, with that steep drop right there between him and the stage*.
The reason I was so insistent that he got rid of his fear isn’t because I thought he should do these things. It’s because in some situations, the fearful feeling can actually expose you to more risk. The physiological symptoms of panic attacks and anxiety are bad enough. But the real danger is in the sensations that can be triggered like dizziness, spinning, loss of balance and movement. If someone who is scared of heights ever finds themselves faced with no other option than climbing down a ladder to escape from the roof of a building, they could be in trouble.
With other common phobias, the biggest risk is the degradation to the quality of life experienced by the sufferers. The negative emotions of stress, worry and in some cases depression, are bad for their mental and physical health. But on top of all this, the sufferer of acrophobia could find themselves in high places where the risk of falling is vastly multiplied through these symptoms and loss of resources.
As you can see, it is important for anyone affected by severe acrophobia to seek professional help as quickly as possible; more so than with other phobias.
Use Your Brain’s Motivation Strategy
To Overcome Fear Of Heights.
So now you know why it is so important to get this treated, let me tell you about the discoveries that have been made regarding this phobia, fear of heights, that I mentioned earlier. Did you know that pretty much every single acrophobic has no trouble at all getting out of bed in the morning? It’s because both these behaviours use the same neurological process.
Here’s how it works. This all happens unconsciously, but when the alarm goes off these people see themselves getting out of bed. And if they see themselves doing something, the next thing they know is they feel their body moving towards starting the action of whatever it is they have just imagined. This unconscious motivation strategy happens automatically. And for getting out of bed it’s probably one of the best strategies that there is. However, it’s not so good if it’s used for absolutely everything. And it’s especially not very good if it’s used when someone sees a height and imagines themselves falling.
The process cycles between these two stages. Firstly, the part of the person that wants to protect them alerts them of the potential danger by imagining the consequences vividly. Then the unconscious motivation strategy responds to this visual element and makes it feel like it’s really happening. The protective part then imagines the danger even more vividly, and the motivation strategy responds even more strongly to the more vividly imagined scenario. And on it goes. I’ve worked with some people who take it a stage further. They not only see the danger and feel themselves doing it, they also see themselves having a panic attack, freaking out, and then deliberately falling to escape the horrible experience of a panic attack.
The good news is that treating these people is usually straightforward* because they’ve already got such an effective motivation strategy. We use the strategy to collapse the strategy. We turn it back on itself. But we also make sure that it still runs in the context of getting up in the morning, and anywhere else that it’s useful.
Even though it seems like your fear is a dysfunction, we evolved this behaviour in order to keep us safe and ensure our survival. But just because we have these unconscious behaviours doesn’t mean your brain is good at deciding whether it’s appropriate to use them in a given context.
When your brain makes the wrong call the fear is classed as a phobia. In most cases, phobias aren’t that good at protecting us, but they’re better than nothing. But in the case of this phobia, fear of heights, it can actually increase the risk rather than protect the person who experiences it.