I won't. But I could.
March 21, 2012 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I am irrationally afraid of heights and subway trains. I live in New York City. HELP!

So, I was already afraid of heights when I moved here, but not, like, terrified- I just didn't like them. Once I moved here I realized I also feared subway trains (when I'm waiting at the station, I mean- not when I'm inside them.) I sort of assumed that these fears would go away with time... but being exposed to them on a daily basis has actually made it a lot worse.

I really need to deal with this, because I work in an office over 20 floors up, and since it's gotten warm we have begun propping the emergency exit door open. This door opens onto a very narrow concrete landing, and is surrounded by a yard-high iron bar railing. When I even look at this open door, even from the other end of the hall, I feel sick. I get the same feeling when a subway train is coming into a station at high speed- sick to my stomach, tense, etc.

The reason why I feel this way- and this is why I'm asking this anon- is because whenever I see these things I imagine my own, violent death. And, although this sounds crazy, I'm not afraid of being pushed- I'm afraid I'll jump.

I AM NOT SUICIDAL, I'm a very happy person and I have no history of mental illness, and there is absolutely no chance that I would choose to end my own life. But I guess I'm afraid that I'll snap or something? I know it makes no sense. I think it's the permanence of it- if you jump off a building or in front of a train, that split-second decision WILL end your life. It's as if I was pointing a loaded gun at myself- I don't want to use it, but staring down that barrel is like staring death in the face. Seeing the abyss on the other side of that iron railing makes me ill because I COULD do it. I COULD take a running jump, clear the railing like it was nothing, and I would be dead. And although I totally 100% don't want to, and I KNOW that I never would... it still makes me sick.

I don't think this really warrants full-on therapy, but I am interested in knowing if anyone else is familiar with this feeling, and if there are any books, techniques, etc that helped them. (I've previously had a lot of luck with CBT for unrelated issues.) I am very poor but if you do think I need actual therapy, low- or no-cost recs for NYC would be helpful.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
And although I totally 100% don't want to, and I KNOW that I never would... it still makes me sick.

This is totally a thing, a (fairly)normal and frequent thing. You may benefit from exposure therapy. You know you'd never jump, but can you prove to yourself that you're in control? Just get out on that balcony, at least once a day, til you've asserted your dominance over these persistent, but ineffectual, 'urges'
posted by MangyCarface at 11:06 AM on March 21, 2012

Just get out on that balcony, at least once a day...

Holy shit no. If you're at the point where you are regularly imagining your own violent death in non-abstract circumstances, any exposure therapy you do needs to be with a professional.
posted by griphus at 11:09 AM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

As ol' MangyCarface (why not capitalize the F?) said, fear of jumping is more common than you think. The question is less "do you have these impulses" and more "how likely are you to act on them?"

Minor bit of practical advice - if you wait at the front end of the platform (i.e. the south end for a southbound train), by the time the trains get to where you're standing they'll be moving much slower (unless they're express, of course). Maybe that would help you manage the fear.

On preview, yeah I wouldn't recommend the balcony alone either.
posted by postel's law at 11:11 AM on March 21, 2012

The fear of jumping thing is very common for those of us with a problem with heights. Mine manifests itself more as a fear that I'll become unusually clumsy and topple over a railing. Your phobia sounds a lot more severe than mine, but the research I've done indicates CBT is the way to deal with this. I haven't followed through on addressing my phobia to date, but I'm very interested to hear if the MeFi consensus is that this is the appropriate solution.
posted by bfranklin at 11:12 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

And, although this sounds crazy, I'm not afraid of being pushed- I'm afraid I'll jump.

It seems like you are afraid this impulse makes you crazy and you're ashamed of that. And I am so sorry, but I almost laughed when I read your question - that's how common this impulse is. Nearly every professional experienced in working with people with phobias will have dealt with this in multiple occasions. (There is a term for this, but I am unable to remember what it is.) And, your fear of trains may actually just be a subset of your acrophia but you would need a clinical assessment to figure that out and to rule out underlying vestibular issues.

You are not a freak, this isn't unusual for a phobia, and a phobia specialist would absolutely be able to help you. A qualified professional will treat you compassionately and not suggest you "just" go stand on a balcony daily.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:12 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is really common and, if I remember correctly, it's sometimes on the OCD spectrum (and sometimes not). You might look up "intrusive thoughts" and see if that fits for you.

I personally hate the noise of subways, I used to have a phobia of the noise. It peaked at about 2 years of living in NYC.

I did a version of exposure therapy on myself, which worked partly. What else worked was being really distracted by music or a game on my phone. Try distracting yourself.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:25 AM on March 21, 2012

It's sounds like something called Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome and it's something that, with professional help, can be addressed. You are not a freak. You are not crazy. You are someone with a medical issue that, with treatment, can be improved greatly.

The comedian Maria Bamford has described having it (even naming one of her CDs such) and talks about it in her act, so you are far from alone.
posted by inturnaround at 11:28 AM on March 21, 2012

I've heard it called The Imp of the Perverse and I can assure you that it's really, really common. I have the same thoughts, though not the extreme fear you associate with it, every time I wait for the subway or look down from a very high building. I've always felt it, as long as I remember.

The problem here is not your thoughts, again, those are fairly normal, but your inability to let them pass you by without terror. I'm not scared because I know I'm not going to do it. I let the impulse wash over me and take it for what it is, just a reaction to the social and natural boundaries that surround us that would be so easily broken if only I took one extra step. I feel powerful, not powerless.

Try reading all you can about it. Imp of the Perverse. Intrusive Thoughts. Depathologize it and it might help you feel better about it until you can afford some therapy (if you still feel like you need it by then).
posted by lydhre at 11:33 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

And, although this sounds crazy, I'm not afraid of being pushed- I'm afraid I'll jump.

Yep, this is a thing. I have it. I haven't yet found a way to beat it, but I haven't tried CBT. Just wanted to let you know that you're totally not alone.

I also get incredibly nervous with people around heights because I worry they might do it... so I really try to avoid them.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 11:35 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have this exact same thing. The only way I have dealt with it in the past is to avoid looking at the balcony and to remember it's not uncommon.

But I completely relate to your thinking. It's the "could" of it. I have it with oncoming traffic. The thought that I could just swerve into oncoming traffic. But it's important to remember that you could do a lot of things. You could ask the guy in the elevator to marry you. You could eat a sandwich today. And you could jump off a balcony...but pretty everyone could do those things. You just have to remind yourself that you could, but that's not what's important. What's important is that you don't WANT to.

Also to give it less importance. When I have these thoughts I just recognize it. "Oh there's that random thought," and move on to something else. It's important to recognize for something that is separate from you, floating in the air above your head.

Sometimes I physically swat it away like a bug. If anyone asks why you're flailing your arms, you can just say you noticed something annoying above your head.
posted by DeltaForce at 11:41 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is related to the weird feeling of having your brain suddenly picture you, like, standing up and yelling in some quiet, dignified environment. But for what it's worth, I totally have that, and things like it. It took me a long time to decide it wasn't completely weird that my brain envisioned doing things (usually just socially unacceptable things, like yelling) that I knew I wasn't going to do. That's why it feels kind of related. I think sometimes, it's very unsettling to even realize that you've had an odd impulse/thought, but as others have noted, I think it's really normal and it does pass. Therapy sounds smart, but this really does sound like a close relative of something I think happens to a lot of people. So address it as something that makes you uncomfortable, but try not to let it make you feel alone in it, because I'm pretty sure you're not, just as everyone else has mentioned.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:12 PM on March 21, 2012

I get the same feeling when a subway train is coming into a station at high speed- sick to my stomach, tense, etc.

Yes, a lot of these people are right that this is fairly common for a lot of people, however, I would look into therapy for this if I were you. 1) Because I don't think you should be feeling sick to your stomach every time this happens, that sounds a bit extreme to me, and 2) Because it is something you've identified as disrupting your life to a degree. Check Psychology Today -- there are a ton of sliding scale CBT therapists who can help you. If you really get stuck memail me.

I've seen this kind of thing get worse for me when my anxiety gets really high. I've also had visions of other people jumping or falling. It goes away for me though, if this is persistent I think a therapist can help you.
posted by sweetkid at 12:38 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I get these thoughts regularly, too - they're a symptom of my OCD. Heights and trains are the scariest, but anything remotely hazardous can be a trigger. (For months I avoided my knife set out of fear that I would suddenly grab one and cut my fingers off.) My brain snaps to the worst-case scenario, and I'm like "Brain, I don't want to," and Brain replies "But you COULD!" It can be terrifying, because if your brain spontaneously thinks it, it feels like your brain might spontaneously do it - but it's not going to happen. Honest.

I imagine them as obnoxious pop-up ads or those local TV news promos with scary attention-grabbing teasers ("Coming up next: SLEEP! People die in it!! Will YOU be next?"). You usually encounter them and tune them out, but occasionally one will grab your attention and refuse to let go. And at first, you're freaked out by the content ("Shit, it's true! Sleep is dangerous!"), but after a while you're just as disturbed by how often you encounter the ad, and how much it bugs you, and how familiar it is: you recognize it from the opening music, and could draw an accurate storyboard from memory.

Another way to think about it: you know how every online forum has at least one inflammatory asshole who likes to rant on one very specific subject? And if you try and debate with them, they'll just get crazier and more offensive? Imagine your daily life as a forum thread. Your brain's merrily chatting along, observing its surroundings, and the word "subway" will come up, and in comes Subway Troll all whaargarbling with his subway-jumping manifesto. You can't always block Subway Troll, and yelling back at him will just put you in a crappy mood, so the best course of action is to look at the post long enough to recognize that it's Subway Troll talking, and then continue on with your previous conversation.

(Can you tell metaphors help me?)

One trick that helps me a lot is to respond to the awful thoughts with an effort to visualize the safe and normal thing that is going to happen. Say, if you're on a subway platform, imagine yourself standing calmly while the train slows to a stop, then getting on and sitting down and playing Angry Birds or whatever it is you usually do on the train. It's calming, and it's easy to visualize because you've already done it a thousand times.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:43 PM on March 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you're at the point where you are regularly imagining your own violent death in non-abstract circumstances, any exposure therapy you do needs to be with a professional.

The OP's thoughts sound a lot different than suicidal ideation. This is common enough that there was a great science fiction short story where the fact that people do this was having some visible consequences in the world in which the story took place. I assume this sort of mental flinch is exacerbated to a bad degree when it's combined with a phobia.
posted by deanc at 12:52 PM on March 21, 2012

This is the opposite of instinct - and only us humans possess it. Animals show no evidence (and they certainly don't put themselves in harm's way purposely).

Both the tall bulding & oncoming train involve destryoying your body in an extreme way. This is power exertion over the "sacred." Judeo-Christian taught the world our body is sacred, from God. As humans, we envision defiling the sacred (xtreme porn, brazen imagery of religious people and relics, beasts & fair maidens, Madonna, Mapplethorpe, etc.).

Luckily, our instinct to survive is much greater - thus why you post rather than having jumped off the bulding yet. But - it should not be tempted, because it is only an instinct, and not a physical obstacle.
posted by Kruger5 at 1:06 PM on March 21, 2012

Many cities' subways now have platform screen doors -- basically a big plexiglas wall between the platform and the train -- that makes the whole experience a lot less terrifying. Supposedly, the Second Avenue Subway (opening 2016*) might get them, so, hey, that's something to look forward to, at least.

*Or whenever. It's been in the works for 90 years.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:00 PM on March 21, 2012

If you want to get some professional help in this department, I'd look into the Anxiety & Phobia Treatment Center in White Plains. It's affiliated with White Plains Hospital Center and they accept insurance, so presumably you could do this (somewhat?) affordably and within a decent distance.

If you do decide to check them out, please let me know what you think--I've been tempted to try their intensive program.
posted by trampoliningisfun at 6:31 PM on March 21, 2012

Just to add to the reassurance, OP: this is such a common aspect of the human condition, it's in Shakespeare:

What if it tempt you toward the flood, my Lord
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea
[...] Think of it.
The very place puts toys of desperation
Without more motive, into every heart
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.

(Hamlet, Act I Scene 4)

(I don't mean, by the way, that you shouldn't try to get it treated; phobias are so treatable with current practices that it would be a crying shame not to. But rest assured, you're not crazy or weird for experiencing this.)
posted by Acheman at 6:33 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

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