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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.