Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice...Read More
Joe was afraid of heights.
He could have just avoided heights, as many people do. The trouble was he also loved them. Joe was a rock climber.
It’s surprising how many rock climbers are afraid of heights. It takes them longer than other climbers to learn new techniques or get used to new climbs, and tackle harder routes.
“It’s scary to be on the edge of stuff,” he told me five years ago. “Even a hill, or a road with a steep drop-off is a problem.”
Fear of heights, or acrophobia, is an irrational fear of high or exposed places. For some people, a cliff is a high place. For others, it can be standing on a chair or even a single step of a staircase.
The key to getting over a fear of heights is thinking small. Small changes are at the heart of big changes. In any endeavor, whether it’s learning to play the violin or perfecting a tennis serve, you have to keep at it. If you keep practicing, little by little, you’ll inch toward mastery.
Joe got a taste for rock climbing when some friends took him to a local gym. “It seemed like a good challenge,” he said. Other acrophobic rock climbers seem to feel the same way. As one rock climbing blogger said, “I appreciate the added mental challenge that it puts me through.”
Joe really struggled at first, though. “I would get most of the way up a pitch, and I would be stuck there because I got scared,” he said. “Even if it was a competition, I would freeze.”
Does the Fear Make Sense?
The word irrational is important, because it makes sense to think twice about how far you are from the ground. Falls can be dangerous, even deadly, and it’s prudent to be cautious.
However, we’re not born with a fear of heights. Infants appear to be curious, rather than afraid, when presented with a drop-off. Fear of heights is a rational fear taken to an irrational level.
The fear itself can include feelings of panic and dread, a physical response of fast heartbeat and shortened breath, a sensation of dizziness or spinning, and a desire to get away from the situation as quickly as possible.
In extreme cases, fear increases the danger of heights because it creates either a problem with balance or a panic reaction that makes it difficult to do the things necessary to get to safety.
About five percent of people who are afraid of heights experience a panic attack when they perceive the height as too great, and need serious help getting down from wherever they have gone.
The Power of Repetition
Joe used two methods to work through his fear. The first was simple repetition. His strategy was to climb as far as he could, hang out at that height for awhile, come down, and repeat.
It didn’t matter how high he went; it might have been just a few feet off the ground. It only mattered that the height was a challenge for him. “My strategy was to just keep climbing the same pitches over and over,” he said.
Joe’s method takes commitment. “I had to push myself.” Joe admits.
The method Joe discovered is at the heart of exposure therapy. I use the same cognitive behavioral technique in my practice to help clients who have a fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of heights, or a variety of other fears or phobias.
The essence of exposure therapy is approaching what you fear little by little, each time challenging yourself a tiny bit more. Treatment is very successful, and in an area where medication is of little help.
Exercise for the Brain
The second method was neurofeedback. Neurofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, is like a workout at the gym, only it’s for your brain. Twice each week, I connected sensors to Joe’s scalp. These sensors measured brainwaves, and displayed the results on a computer screen.
In the EEG display, I saw one of the characteristic patterns for anxiety, an excess of high-frequency waves in several areas of the brain.
The ability to measure something is in itself helpful, because any physiological process that can be measured can be changed. Each time Joe was able to create an EEG pattern more associated with calm and confidence, he got positive feedback from the computer – a beep and a picture.
In a typical neurofeedback session, a client gets over 2,000 pieces of feedback. With that feedback, Joe was able to gain control of his mental process and thus reduce the anxiety and feel more confident.
The combination of neurofeedback and Joe’s regular practice worked well together, and he started to improve. “I noticed it was easier when I was trying to climb fast,” he explained, “because when I was thinking about speed I didn’t have to think about the height. I got to be good at fast climbing.” Joe had found a way to use a strength to move past the fear.
The support of friends helped him as well. “My friends encouraged me, and sometimes they would joke about it. That helped too. I kept at it because I really liked climbing.”
Change from the Inside
Arno Ilgner, author of “The Rock Warrior’s Way,” investigated why some climbers are so afraid of heights, why they climb anyway, and how they get through it. One thing he found was that if you want to climb well, it’s best not to focus on just getting to the top.
Rock climbing, he argues, should be a means to an end rather than the end itself. It’s not about getting to the top per se. For Ilgner the real end is being present to the joys and the stress of climbing. Rock climbing, he says, is about choosing your focus, learning to steady your attention, and learning.
Joe found something similar in his own climbing.
“Climbing a wall might not seem like much to other people,” he said, “but to me what mattered is that I kept pushing myself. I realized then that I could use the same strategy to get over other fears, like being in crowds and talking in front of groups of people. You have to keep trying, and little by little you’ll get there. You can use that strategy for anything.”
Exposing a Fear
Building confidence and overcoming fear take time, but with a systematic approach, you’re likely to succeed. The heart of this approach is here:
- Relax. Choose a technique that helps you relax, and practice it. That way you can bring yourself back to calm during each exposure. Neurofeedback can help here, and so can progressive relaxation, a peaceful image, meditation, yoga, or anything else that helps you feel calm. When you’re working with a performance-related fear, exercise also helps – work out until you tire yourself out. Anxiety takes energy, and if you’re tired, you’ll have less energy to worry.
- Feel what you feel. As author Ambrose Redmoon wrote, “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” When you feel anxious, your body will respond. Let that be okay. Be safe, of course, and then just let the fear, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or any other sensations just be there.
- Don’t believe everything you think. Are your thoughts rational or irrational? If the thought is rational, take care of yourself. If it’s not, then try refuting or challenging them. When Joe noticed himself thinking, “I’m going to fall,” he challenged it. After all, he was in an indoor gym. That meant he was tied in with a top rope and there were thick mats below. He was safe. In other words, is your fear rational or irrational?
- Rehearse. Imagination is powerful. Athletes and performers use imagination to improve their game and polish their act. Coaches and police cadets use mental imagery to prepare for the unexpected, with excellent results. Imagine yourself climbing perfectly, reaching the top, and celebrating. You can almost feel the high-five, right?
- Practice. It’s small actions, one after the other, that make big changes happen.
Heights are normal for Joe these days. With focused effort – and a nudge from neurofeedback – he got over his fear of heights. But he ended up doing more than climbing rock walls, because he was operating from a fundamental principle: How we do a small thing is how we do everything.
When you want to master something, whether it’s rock climbing or tennis, playing the violin or learning to coach, you have to learn to stretch yourself in ways that are challenging. It helps to love the process, to find some part of what you are doing as more important than the fear. These are the tools that give you confidence to continue to challenge yourself.
Joe, five years later, is still climbing.
Keep Reading By Author Pat LaDouceur, Ph.D.
Read In Order Of Posting
I'd never had a fear of heights until now, but as the crane took me higher, I noticed with increasing alarm the sounds from the ground far below now becoming muted; the crowd distant. Oh no! I began to breathe rapidly and sweat like a dressed up pig in a sauna whilst my thoughts raced away quicker than a missed train.
"Why are they taking me higher than everybody else?" (Or so it seemed to me.)
"Is this elastic really going to stop me plummeting to my doom?"
My first ever bungee jump was not above the sea as promised, but over a crowded concrete parking lot. Here I was about to dive head first two hundred feet down into what must surely be oblivion. I was shocked by my own sudden terror.
"On the count of three, dive!" instructed one of the guys in the crane.
But I still wanted conversation over action: "And...and you're certain this thing [the bungee cord] will hold?"
I looked down at the crowd gathered like sensation seeking ants around a tasty carcass. Some of those distant dots had sponsored me to take this leap of fate.
I gazed at the large dizzying emptiness between me and the concrete, then decided I'd actually rather die than have to face the shame of coming back down again in the lift after having so publically chickened out. So with a melodramatic internal "Goodbye cruel world," I let myself drop into space...
How I overcame my own fear of heights
To my surprise, I survived, bouncing back like a giant baby toy. But after this, I developed a short-lived fear of heights.
Between that jump and the next, two years later, I learned self-hypnosis and taught myself to relax whatever the height. Because I remember the feeling:
- The freezing sensation that you're stuck and can't move or look up or down.
- The heart thumping in your chest like a big band drum kit.
- The feeling that you're about to lose your footing.
- The horrible anticipation that you might have to go up somewhere high.
In the years since, I've also helped many overcome fear of heights in private practice and as demonstrations of phobia cures on hypnosis workshops.
Here's some of what you can do to help overcome a fear of heights.
1) One step at a time, please
There is a technique used by some psychologists called 'flooding'. The idea is that if you confront your fear head on, in one fell swoop, then your fear system will be so overpowered that when you calm down, the fear will be gone.
Way back when, kids who feared water used to be thrown in at the deep end of a pool. I'm not saying this never works, but in my experience of clearing up the psychological mess of people who've survived this 'technique', it can often deepen the trauma if it doesn't work (and it often doesn't).
So I'm suggesting you only do what you're comfortable doing - one step at a time. Practice visiting one level of a building, then eventually the next, and so on, until, bit by bit, you become accustomed to getting higher.
Set small challenges for yourself: "Okay, today I'm just going to walk across that low bridge over the stream and see how that feels...and next week I'll have a look at going up a notch by seeing how it feels to walk halfway up that office block in town..."
2) Lower the fear as you get higher
Fear, terror, and anxiety feel like they just 'happen to us'. We don't describe, say, panic as something we 'do', but as something that 'attacks' us. But there are things you can do even when you are up high (or about to be) to quickly calm down and thereby take control.
- Breathe yourself back down to calm: When people are scared, they either forget to breathe (for short periods of time, obviously) or they just breathe quickly in but forget to breathe out. To lower panic, pause your breathing for 5 seconds, then take a big breath in and exhale slowly. Ensure you breathe out for slightly longer than you breathe in, as this will rapidly start to calm you right down.
- Scale the fear in numbers: Because your 'thinking brain' tends to be 'swamped' by the emotional brain when you feel fearful, you can actually diminish the fear by forcing your thinking brain to work - thus diluting the anxiety. The easiest way to do this is through scaling the level of fear.
Think: "If absolute terror is 10 and total calm is 1, where am I right now on that scale?" You might decide you're at an 8. Now, as you start to extend your exhalations, notice how those numbers go down as you feel calmer.
3) Forget the past
Well, don't actually forget the past, but learn to feel relaxed about old high up situations. For months after my first bungee jump, I could 'get the fear back' simply by remembering that time. If you also find that you can feel fearful just by recalling previous times you were anxious up high, then you'll need to start to feel relaxed when you recall those old fearful times so as to 'unhook' the fearfulness from the memory. This is often the first step to overcoming fear of heights.
When you can do this, the fear very quickly becomes de-conditioned. There is a wonderful treatment called 'The Rewind Technique' which very rapidly and comfortably helps get you feeling totally calm about old scary memories. Which means your brain is clear to relax up high in future without those old triggers working against you any more.
Practice breathing calmly and viewing those old memories from a large distance in your mind to unhook those old associations. Or, ideally, search for someone skilled in using the Rewind Technique in your area.
4) Prepare your mind
It will help to prepare to feel calm and relaxed before you go up someplace high. So:
- Sit or lie down someplace comfortable.
- Close your eyes.
- Start to focus on breathing comfortably, with particular attention to breathing out (which mobilizes your relaxation response).
- Begin to visualize watching yourself on a TV screen looking relaxed, comfortable, and calm in a high place.
- Watch the sequence through to the end, seeing yourself totally calm, even enjoying the experience.
This will help 'set the right program' in your mind ahead of time so that 'spontaneously' feeling calm in the situation becomes much more likely. Click below for a free audio to get a taste of this relaxing exercise.
5) Get perspective
One way to get perspective on this is to regularly remember all the thousands and millions of people who used to be fearful of heights but who no longer are. You too can soon join their ranks.
And for even greater perspective, imagine seeing the Earth from a few thousand miles away and noticing that even the highest places look completely flat from that perspective.
How to get stress, fear and anxiety under control
Click here to get our co-founder Mark Tyrrell's tips, tricks and techniques for beating fear and anxiety, gathered from over 15 years of treating anxiety conditions.