The Millstone Times February 2022

The Fear of Heights By Pam Teel

The scientific name of ‘fear of heights’ is acrophobia. It is caused by a degree of uneasiness people feel when standing on a high structure, particularly near the edge, which may be attributed to a fear of fall- ing. One in fifteen people experience some kind of discomfort when exposed to heights at some point in their lives. The term acrophobia refers to people with extreme, irrational fears of heights and situations associated with them. People with this con- dition try to avoid situations where they will be exposed to heights but sometimes, it’s not always possible. When faced with heights or anticipating them, their sympathetic nervous system is aroused, as if preparing the body for an emergency. This arousal helps either ap- proach or escape from a threat (commonly known as the fight-or- flight response).

They may experience vertigo (a moving or spinning sensation), increased heart rate, shortness of breath, sweating, anxiety, shaking or trembling, nausea, or an upset stomach. A fight-or-flight response can be adaptive in dangerous situations, because it can help us re- spond to dangerous situations. But in people with acrophobia, this re- sponse can occur when no danger is present. While standing upright, the brain uses visual input from nearby objects to make tiny postural adjustments that help maintain balance. However, when standing at a high elevation relative to their surroundings - like at the edge of a tall building - most people feel somewhat off balance. This is because visual input from nearby objects is lacking, and the objects in view are too far away for the brain to use for balance control.

There are two main perspectives about how acrophobia develops. Broadly, fears and phobias are either innate (evolutionary perspective) or learned (behaviorists perspective). According to the evolutionary psychology perspective, fears and phobias are innate. That is, people can experience a fear of heights without direct (or indirect) contact with heights. Instead, acrophobia is somehow hardwired so people have this fear before they first come into contact with heights. Evolutionary psychologists suggest people who are afraid of heights are more likely to escape from this potentially dangerous situation or avoid it altogether. By doing this, they are then more likely to survive and later reproduce, allowing them to pass on their genes. Researchers suggest that as a result, this fear has been passed down from generation to generation. But this mechanism cannot account for all phobias. Innate phobias must reflect objects or situations that have presented a long-term threat to human survival. Avoiding the object or situation must also increase opportunities for reproduction. While the evolutionary perspective may explain phobias such as a fear of heights or snakes, it has difficulty explaining phobias associated with going to the dentist or public speaking. Intense fear of heights might develop for several reasons, perhaps through a traumatic or frightening event that may have happened to you, like falling off a ladder. This could trigger a phobia of heights because the distressing experience will always be linked to the height you fell in the person's memories, thus bringing on panic and anxiety when you feel you are in danger of falling again. For some people, extreme heights trigger this fear. Others may fear any kind of height, including small stepladders or stools. This can lead to a range of physical and psychological symptoms. According to behaviorists, fears and phobias are learned, most commonly due to what’s known as classical conditioning. To demonstrate how classical conditioning of phobias occurs, imagine you climbed a tree for the first time. According to the behaviorist’s perspective, you’d be unlikely to be afraid being up there. But if you then fell from the tree, you would likely experience distress and fear. The first time you climb a tree, it’s unlikely you’d be afraid. But if you then fell from the tree, you’d likely experience distress and fear. A behaviorist would expect that because the experience of being up high is followed by the trauma of falling, you may then learn to associate the negative event with heights. You learn to associate the neutral stimulus (heights) with the fear-evoking stimulus (falling). So, you feel fear and distress the next time you are faced with heights. Because of these learned associations between heights and trauma, behaviorists suggest people can then be afraid of heights in future encounters. Linking fear with heights means when someone encounters the original situations (heights) they show a fear response to something that they previously showed no or a neutral response. They also suggest fears and phobias can also be learned vicariously. It may be that even though there are no snakes in New Zealand, some people in New Zealand may have learned their fear of snakes by hearing stories from other people with a fear of snakes. In reality, the best explanation may be a mix of both behaviorist and evolutionary perspectives. In treatment, both evolutionary and behaviorist accounts draw on the behaviorist perspective of how fears and phobias are learnt. Exposure therapy is a commonly used therapy for various phobias, whether the fear is innate or learned. It involves gradual exposure to the feared object or situation in a safe and controlled environment. This is so that when coming into contact with the feared object or situation, people learn that they are not in danger and no longer experience a phobic response. In contrast, some people can go up as high as the sky and don’t even think twice about it. Construction workers work on tall buildings, climb up high towers, and never flinch. Not everyone can do their job. I know I can’t, not for any amount of money, can you?

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