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August 27, 2011 7:45 AM   Subscribe

How and/or can I get over my fear of (a specific kind of) heights?

I am an avid hiker, and as are most people that do such things, interested in the nice views at the top of mountains, cliffs, etc. However, I do have a fear of heights that is limiting my ability to do an enjoy certain hikes.

My fear is specific to being in a high open space, near the edge of a steep drop. Here's my self-diagnosis:
- I am not scared of being in planes or high buildings looking down. I am scared of being on a bridge, or on a steep trail.
-I just don't like to be more than 5-10 feet from an edge, which is problematic for some of the more interesting hikes out West. For example, I recently tried to do "Angel's Landing" in Zion, and couldn't get more than 20 feet.
-I don't get panicky, but more like my body locks up, I feel like I am about to jump (not desiring to, just the feeling) and I can't move easily.
-Also, I live in New York, so my exposure to the kind of hikes that are invoking this fear happens about 3-4 a year on trips. I hike a lot in the Catskills (not scary).

Does anyone know if its possible to "conquer" a fear of heights, through repetition, mind tricks, something else?
posted by RajahKing to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I get this, too, to an extent. My fear comes from the idea that someone's going to push me (even if I'm alone) or that the wind will pick up and knock me over or that I'll trip and fall and plummet over the edge forever. I also don't get too close to the ledge in the subway for the same reason.

When I've been in a situation out hiking or something, where the whole point is to, you know, stand there and see it, I sit down. Sit down at a distance I'm comfortable and scooch myself forward on my butt. Simply by lowering my center of gravity, I greatly reduce the gonna-fall-over feeling (or, in your case, the gonna-jump feeling) and it ceases to be scary.

Yeah, other people might look at you funny or act exasperated because you're taking longer, but who cares? You have just as much right to be there as they do.
posted by phunniemee at 7:53 AM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]


Acrophobia is usually highly treatable. You are likely concentrating on the danger rather than the things you know how to do to keep yourself safe. Change that. One of the most effective methods is a gradual desensitization. Approach the precipice (or the top of the ladder...whatever) slowly. Pay attention to what you are feeling. At the first notice of that fear, stop. Breath deeply. Instead of concentrating on the height or the drop or the possible horrible consequences of jumping or falling, think consciously of the actual physical ways you are keeping yourself safe. E.G. staying far enough back from the edge, being aware of your balance and obstacles that could trip you, etc. Breath deeply, relax. When your heart rate has returned to normal move closer to the edge if it is safe and you want to. Stop and repeat the above steps when you feel the fear again.

It's probably best to do this with a companion you trust as a "spotter". It may also help to have someone there to talk to about the immediate feelings and the safety methods. Saying these things to someone is actually different from just noticing them yourself.

Obviously, a competent psychotherapist can help you with this, usually with very short term intervention. Good luck.
posted by txmon at 8:11 AM on August 27, 2011


I used to be an avid rock climber. One of my climbing buddies reminded me that most people don't have a fear of heights, they have a fear of falling. That is a different thing. You state that you are OK in airplanes or in high buildings. So you don't fear heights. But you are afraid on a bridge, or on that narrow path to the top of Angels Landing. So it is the exposure/fear of falling that appears to be the issue here. In the climbing world, everyone deals with the extremely normal fear of falling by never climbing routes that are beyond your ability level. This sort of goes along with an important rule of lead climbing: don't fall. How could this work for you? Find a hike that you can do OK, but is close to the limits of your tolerance. Do it a few times and see if it starts to feel more and more comfortable. If it does, find a hike with a bit more exposure, that tests your limits again. Hike that one a few times until it becomes more familiar and comfortable. This process requires more hiking time and the right spots. Perhaps there are urban proxies that you could find to accomplish the same sort of thing? Like different pedestrian bridges with different levels of exposure, etc? And come to think of it, you could join a rock-climbing gym in NYC. A good gym will have many many routes...some very short and not scary ranging up to 60-70 ft walls with decent exposure. You could start low and slowly build your confidence and tolerance.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 8:13 AM on August 27, 2011


I get this too. Spent a fair amount of time in planes, and big buildings no sweat. But on an open balcony, or just someting that seem a little rickety, almost paralyzes me.

I cant google up a cite for it for the life of me, but from what I remember, this is a fairly comon adult onset sort of phobia. Something to do with brain chemistry, where your body stops interpreting an adrenalin rush as fun, but as danger, which induces fear. I am sure there is some version of beta blockers, that would help with the panic, but I'm figuring the last place you would want to be while on them is standing on a steep cliff.
posted by timsteil at 8:24 AM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have this fear too, and honestly, I'm really klutzy and almost want to say that my fear is founded. It might not be so bad that you're a little scared to get right up to the edge of a teetering ravine.
posted by threeants at 8:46 AM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]


This plagues me, and it's only been that I've met other people with the same precise fear of heights. I have no problem on a plane, or a roller coaster, or any other form of heights where, no matter what I do, I can't fall.

The heights problem I have is, when it comes down to it, if I lost control of myself, even for a moment, I could do something stupid (like hurl myself off the precipice) and end up dead. Cliff edges, helicopters, gondollas, ropeways, they all terrify me, and, as un-diagnosed as I am, I imagine there's something deep in me that's not all that happy/healthy. I don't have much to say other than you're not alone, and, if you find some way of dealing with this, please let me know. I love mountain climbing and hiking, yet I've let this fear get in my way for most of my adult life.
posted by Ghidorah at 8:51 AM on August 27, 2011


I have that same exact fear. I love flying, nice view doesn't bother me, but it is not the height, it's the lack of support. My body freezes up, just like yours.

I've made some progress with it by basically allowing myself to go to the point where I freeze up and then my spouse will lead me, holding my hand or with his arm around me, just a little further than I would feel comfortable with on my own. Even though it is an irrational fear, I am klutzy, and I think in the back of my mind I realize that he has better balance and so I trust his surer footing better than my own.

I am not sure how this can help you, though, unless you are okay with your hiking buddies embracing you and leading you out.
posted by misha at 9:01 AM on August 27, 2011


In case it helps to put a name to this, it sounds like the feeling you have (of being about to jump) is a phenomenon sometimes called "the imp of the perverse" or l'appel du vide. AskMe thread here.
posted by chinston at 9:12 AM on August 27, 2011


Lots of great advice upthread.

Something to think about adding to the mix is daily yoga. I began doing yoga at home and did it for several years before I took up hiking. I discovered that yoga incidentally helped me get over exactly the fear of heights/falling that you describe . . . and my former klutziness. Everything in yoga (and tai chi btw) is about balance--you stretch or balance one side of your body then the other. I've done some big climbs, including Angel's Landing in Zion, which the old, klutzy me wouldn't have even attempted. I am no longer afraid of other climbs either--Eiffel Tower, Duomo in Florence, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and countless other towers, domes, steeples that used to force a retreat.
posted by Elsie at 10:46 AM on August 27, 2011


Im afraid of heights. I get vertigo. I also have been an avid climber on and off for 17 years and a mountaineer for apparently 10 years...(holy crap... I didn't realize that). Somewhere in there I came to accept that the rock didn't want me on it. It was actively pushing me off, compelling me toward the ground far below. As odd as it sounds, I'm cool with that. I know where it stands.

So I just did it anyway. The faces got steeper, the cracks smaller, the gear farther spread out. I was capeable of doing a big wall.

Then I did a two foot wide chip of a face and froze up. My buddy pointed out to me that the route was infront of me, all the holds that I needed were there, and that if anything, the route was less complicated because I didn't have the distraction of going off route.

I won't lie. I told him where to go. Then I took a breath and observed the route exactly like he said... there was my route, it was the only route I needed to be worried about, and thee rock was everywhere it needed to be... sure the sky was where I didn't like it, and if I leaned a little too far left, I would be in the sky and off the route, but the route I needed was right there. This realization translated to backpacking and mountaineering on ridgelines. As long as I have appropriate gear for the conditions, I know where my feet go... the route has just become uncluttered with extraneous false trails.

So yeah, I can do I. I can enjoy it. Neither of those two things mean that I don't occasionally bug the heck out of my skull. Freaking out is natural and safe...
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:08 PM on August 27, 2011


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