What Actually Happens to Your Body When You Have a Fear of Heights

A fear of heights, or acrophobia, is one of the most common phobias among the general population. That’s probably because it’s considered an extreme version of a generalized fear – our instincts know that being high up means there’s a risk we can fall, resulting in at the least some pain and at the most, a quick exit.

Acrophobia is a perception-induced fear, so the triggering height spans a spectrum across sufferers. Some people may only feel the fear when staring down the side of a too-tall tower, while others can barely stand to climb the ladder to clean out their gutters. So what happens to your body when acrophobia takes control?

The most visible signs are sweating and shaking, classic indicators of nervous behavior. You may begin to feel heart palpitations, and might feel such an intense sense of panic that you begin to yell. On the other hand, you could become totally paralyzed by fear, unable to move.

Psychologically, as soon as the panic sets in you’ll start searching for something to hold on to, no longer trusting your own sense of balance. Common reactions include descending as quickly as possible, dropping to your hands and knees to crawl back down, or in any way lowering your body closer to the ground.

Because acrophobia can be attributed to a wide range of situations, there are a number of related conditions that can have adverse effects on the unsuspecting individual.

Vertigo, more than just a Hitchcock film, causes sensations of spinning and dizziness, and can be induced by acrophobia. That sudden feeling of sickness and loss of balance doesn’t help much when the person’s fear of heights includes, even subliminally, a distinct fear of falling. Bathmophobia is a fear of slopes and stairs, while climacophobia is the fear of being forced to climb. Most people afflicted with either also have acrophobia, as the fears both stem from the idea of climbing to a certain height. Aerophobia is the fear of flying, which is usually closely tied to the fear of being so high up in the sky.

So what can you do to avoid that dizzying pit in your stomach?

As with most phobias, the best way to get over your fear is to face it. Exposure is the most widely touted cure for acrophobia, as long as it’s done safely and without fully traumatizing the fearer. New studies have also shown success in treating acrophobia with virtual reality. Other options like psychotherapy and medication may be necessary for more sever sufferers, while yoga and breathing exercises can have great success with mild cases.