What is Acrophobia?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Acrophobia is one of the most common phobias and is an extreme fear of heights, which can induce feelings of panic, panic attacks, nausea, and dizziness. This phobia should not be confused with agoraphobia, the fear of the outdoors or open spaces, which contributes to many people feeling they can’t leave their homes. Both are serious conditions, and both common, but of the two, acrophobia is more widespread and is possibly an inborn trait in some people.

A person with acrophobia, of a extreme fear of heights, would probably never want to try tightrope walking over a ravine.
A person with acrophobia, of a extreme fear of heights, would probably never want to try tightrope walking over a ravine.

What constitutes heights can vary for each person with this fear. For some, it only manifests when a person is in a particularly high place, like a building of several stories or on top of a cliff that overlooks a sheer drop. For others, walking up a flight of stairs or climbing a ladder is enough to induce panic and distress. The fear can easily curtail everyday activities, especially when it is extremely pronounced. Like the agoraphobic person, a person with this phobia may not want to leave his or her home because he or she may be faced with panic inducing heights unexpectedly.

People with acrophobia may experience panic, nausea, and dizziness when dealing with heights.
People with acrophobia may experience panic, nausea, and dizziness when dealing with heights.

Many people may feel mildly uncomfortable when in high places, and this experience is not limited to humans — other mammals show discomfort if they reach certain heights too. Usually, this term is used only when the person or animal can be said to be extremely uncomfortable and goes into a panic state when confronted with being in a high place. The main theories used to explain this phenomenon suggest that, like all phobias, the fear became uncontrollable after a traumatic incident in early childhood.

Skydiving is an example of an activity someone with acrophobia would try to avoid.
Skydiving is an example of an activity someone with acrophobia would try to avoid.

Since other animals have been shown to exhibit some signs of fear of heights, researchers are now positing that the fear may have to do with the way that the internal sense of balance works. The person with acrophobia may not be able to rely on natural sense of balance and continues to rely on what they see as high place. The feeling of being unbalanced can lead to panic, nausea, and vertigo or dizziness in some cases, because it pulls against the natural tendency for the body to remain balanced.

Someone suffering from acrophobia may fear riding in an elevator.
Someone suffering from acrophobia may fear riding in an elevator.

This would suggest that people might be able to overcome the fear by shutting their eyes and relying on natural balance to stabilize themselves. Usually though, acrophobics have so many incidences of this feeling, that this may not be enough alone, since the fear of heights may be associated with mental trauma. Though the fear itself might not be irrational from a physical perspective, repeated instances of emotional trauma associated with heights create irrational fear.

A person with acrophobia may have a hard time flying in planes.
A person with acrophobia may have a hard time flying in planes.

Like most phobias, acrophobia is treated with a variety of therapies, most commonly exposure therapy. Under the guidance of professionals, the person is guided through staged experiences of height, often first starting with virtual reality views of high places. This can help to gradually desensitize the individual to the situation. Sometimes, medication like tranquilizers or antidepressants are useful in the early stages of treatment, but when the person is able to recover, they may not be needed in the long term. Further, there’s some suggestion, given the internal balance theory, that psychiatric medication would do more harm than good, since many of these medicines affect balance.

Acrophobia interferes with a person's internal sense of balance.
Acrophobia interferes with a person's internal sense of balance.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


Extreme acrophobia notes: f your phobia is from a single event, it's much more treatable. If your phobia is from your "world view" (a.k.a. "core beliefs) it's harder. The longer you have avoided what scares you, the harder it is to deal with -- 40 years in my case.

There is a hereditary link. Both my parents were phobic (heights and driving).

Flooding (presenting you to your fears fully and immediately) is dangerous for older people.

CBT only works on phobias rooted in an event.

Gains made in exposure therapy age out if you don't keep repeating exposure to your fear.

There is evidence acrophobia is linked to a failure of portions of the human "balance" mechanism (there are at least two).

Lots of places promise quick cures, but many of them are pushing a particular method which may or may not make sense for your particular history and case.


I am an Indian (male), living in Bangalore. I had a traumatic experience about falling in the past (probably when I was 15 years old,now I am 20 years old). I am very depressed that I have acrophobia. How can I cure this?


I have acrophobia but I only start feeling the symptoms when I'm not in an enclosed area (like on an elevator or a plane. Recently, my class at school had gone up to the bell tower in a cathedral and the spiral staircase width was only about 60 cm, with the stairs being 20 cm tall and 15cm wide for your feet to step on. There were no handrails or hand grips to help you up the stairs (there were about 40 steps), only a thin rope that was to support my whole class of 26!

My symptoms took over me and when I finally reached the small room at the top I refused to go back down at the end of the lesson. In fact, my teacher had to coax me down and I didn't put a foot onto the first step to start the descent until about 45 minutes after the lesson ended. None of the other students understood my fear and they all thought that I was “weak” because I stated hyperventilating, almost blacked out and started crying as soon as we got into the small room. In fact, it was so bad, I had to demand that the tiny window to be closed because the slight draft made me so scared! I really hope that I can get over my acrophobia as I can't even cross the Harbour Bridge Sydney without feeling sick!


Well, I don't know if I really do have acrophobia. When I was little, looking down my grandma's stairs would make my legs feel weird, so I guess I'm a little afraid.

Then I was fifteen feet up in the air doing a ropes course. I was so freaked out I cried up there. Then the guy lowered me down to the ground and that wasn't so scary going down, maybe because I trusted the guy going down.

Sometimes even looking pictures from a high angle makes my legs feel weird.


I have mild acrophobia as well and it annoys me to no end. I can climb up stairs to a certain point, and then I start hyperventilating and feeling weak. For some reason airplanes don't bother me but I think that's because I can pretend that I'm just in a really cramped train. I can't go on roller coasters or Ferris wheels and it feels like I'm missing out on so much. I wish I could get rid of it.


I have acrophobia and it's not to bad for me. I can climb stairs (up to a certain point) and climb low rock walls but I can't go on Ferris wheels or roller coasters or on the top floor of tall buildings. My legs feel weak and I get dizzy and start to hyperventilate. It's nice to know I'm not the only one with this phobia.


I am not sure if I have experienced acrophobia. On a recent trip to New York, we visited "30 Rock" and went to the top of the building - I was unable to step to the perimeter of the observation deck and had to find a seat indoors. I can also recall recent experiences where even seeing certain scenes on TV causes this particular condition in your 50's? Thanks.


The older I get the worse my acrophobia gets. I was at a Broncos game sitting high in the cheap seats and had to leave. I've been to tons of games and just hope I don't keep getting worse. They lost anyway.


I always had a fear of heights since i was little, and i thought it was normal. But anyway after i had my one year old daughter i started having anxiety, especially when i get on the train platform. My legs feel weak, i feel as if i can't breathe and i always need someone to go with me.

It's really a scary feeling and i really want help because i can't really do much with fear.


I heard Rey Mysterio was actually Acrophobic.


This thing helped me for my essay. Thanks! By the way, i have acrophobia, too. It's so freakin scary, i always try to overcome it but i can never. this has been since i was born. i was always scared of heights. i mean i can go in an elevator or climb a ladder lol but i just can't go to places like the eiffel tower or on roller coasters!


I am so extremely acrophobic, that it has really messed up my life.

I have never been in a plane. I can't even climb up stairs. I get so bad I have blacked out before. I so want to lead a normal life and fix this problem.

if anyone out there can help. please let me know where to go or who to call.


I thought I was the only one suffering this since a few years ago. I wasn't afraid of heights before, like I can go for rock-climbing without any fear. But it's now no more. Crossing a river/valley while walking on the bridge which held up few metres up, walking through the small path in a cape with oceans surrounding you, sliding up/down a mountain using cable car... these are few things I can list out. I love nature so much, though it's not to the point to jungle-trekking etc, but all the things I listed above are the least I will do. If only I can overcome this phobia.


When I was a kid, I thought it was quite normal for me to be scared of heights. Back then, I'd stand in front of the wall on the second floor of our school building and I'll start imagining that it'd fall off or the floor would crash and I'd fall. I tremble just by thinking about such things. I only realized that I was really acrophobic last year, my first year in college. We had to go wall climbing for PE. I was barely a foot above the ground and I was already trembling. I couldn't try it anymore because I already started crying uncontrollably. I had to climb the straight basic wall though, and though I'm physically capable to finish it in a few minutes, I wasn't able to because I hyperventilated while climbing and had to stop to catch my breath. I was so scared, especially when I had to let go of the handholds and cling to the rope, hanging there.


I am also Acrophobic, mine is inborn. I remember in sixth grade (I have always been Acrophobic) they had us do a rock wall and I got to the second stone, looked down and started crying. I cannot go anymore than three feet off the ground without bursting into tears and hyperventilating.

It's horrible because I can't do the same things others can--but then again I don't want to so it's all good. My friends have all tried desensitization on me and it only made it worse. I may have to go to a Doctor to get help.


Hi obsessedwithloopy.

Both my children seem mildly acrophobic. They get anxious and worried about heights. Both can sustain being on heights for a while but they don't want to get too close to the edges of big heights. Trips in a car scaling mountains really worries them. I think a lot of people have at least a mild fear of heights, so you're certainly not alone. Thanks for your comment

T E Christensen


I have acrophobia. It is a very uncomfortable feeling in certain situations. For instance I am very uncomfortable when taking a chairlift up the mountain. I am fine up to a certain height, but when the ground starts getting farther and farther away from me, it becomes painful.

It is very irrational, I am aware of it, but there is nothing that I can do about that fear. Usually coming down the mountain on the chairlift is easier for me, even though the height is the same.

Glass elevators can produce the same uncomfortable feeling, and so will stairs that are not fully enclosed.

Post your comments
Forgot password?