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Acrophobia Defined

written by: Kathy Foust • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 7/31/2009

Acrophobia is easily defined and not so easily understood by those who don't share the phobia. Read below learn what acrophobia is as well as some explanation of where it originates from.

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    What is Acrophobia?

    There are people that are intimidated by heights and then there are people who are downright terrified of them in such an intense manner that they will actually "freeze up" when forced to go beyond a comfortable height for them. This is known as acrophobia. The disorder belongs on the spectrum of disorders that include space and motion discomfort. The extremes of this disorder vary from person to person. While one person may be terrified of flying due to their disorder, another person may refuse to even get on a step ladder.

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    What Causes Acrophobia?

    There is a great deal of speculation as to what causes this disorder. In fact, it's much easier to answer "What is acrophobia?" than it is to answer to the cause of the disorder. The problem is that treatment for these types of disorders is often based on the cause for them. Below are a couple of the speculations as to the cause of acrophobia.

    • Conditioning- There are those that have an unreasonable fear of heights due to past experience. An example would be someone who was dropped as a baby or had a similar traumatic experience at some age. This is often treated by reconditioning the person in a progressive manner so that they can eventually reach a reasonable height without fear.
    • Survival- Some argue that a fear of heights is a non-associative fear that is built into the survival instinct. Animals often display a natural fear of heights directly from infancy, leaving no room for the conditioning theory. This has been tested using the famous experiment of attempting to encourage infants to crawl across a piece of glass that is set above a lower floor. The babies naturally refuse to crawl over it as they recognize potential danger.
    • Balance Dysfunction- Those with problems maintaining balance in general may have a problem with heights due to the fact that their senses are already working hard to simply maintain normal balance. When height is added into the mix, especially height and motion at the same time, the person is likely to become anxious as their senses are entirely overwhelmed.

    This leaves us to the age-old question of whether the problem is nature or nurture? Obviously, the answer to the question varies depending on the person. Those with traumatic histories involving heights are indeed likely to have problems associated with heights, but this does not mean that every person with acrophobia has it because they have had a traumatic experience.

    Reference: Acrophobia.net