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What is the Cause of a Fear of Heights?

written by: Jennifer Gunnerson • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 8/19/2010

The fear of heights is one of the more common phobias, and is also known as acrophobia. There are several theories regarding the cause of a fear of heights, but with each theory, the person's personal history and current medical condition should be taken into consideration.

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    What is the cause of a fear of heights?

    First, it is important to understand what acrophobia is exactly. Acrophobia can be defined as an intense and constant fear of heights. The word is a combination of the Greek “phobos", meaning fear, and “acron", meaning height. Those that suffer from acrophobia may realize that rationally, being up high is not necessarily dangerous, but they may be unable to stop themselves from experiencing excessive anxiety in certain altitude situations.

    In mild cases, this type of anxiety disorder can affect a person in a variety of situations including but not limited to; traveling across bridges, going into tall buildings, amusement rides, flying and much more. In severe cases, acrophobia can prevent a person from being able to climb a ladder, a set of stairs or even be able to comfortably stand on a chair. Left untreated, the fear of heights can interfere with day-to-day life and prohibit those that suffer from the phobia from doing many of the things that most people take for granted.

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    Images

    The fear of heights is a common phobia.
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    Causes of Acrophobia

    There are several factors that are believed to come into play regarding the causes of acrophobia. One of the most popular explanations for the cause of the fear of heights is that it is an amplified reaction to the natural fear of injury or death that could occur when falling from a high place. This theory maintains that all humans have a natural fear of heights, but with some, this fear becomes exaggerated due to a past traumatic experience regarding heights. Perhaps a past fall or near slip from a high place has caused one to react with a fight or flight response as a method of protection from possible future falls.

    Another theory regarding the cause of acrophobia is that the fear is completely non-associative, meaning that it does not stem from any previous traumatic experience. This theory states that certain fears are ingrained in the human psyche to protect us from danger. The danger of falling from great heights would have come into play with early nomadic man, exploring new and possibly treacherous terrain. This speculation does not fully explain why some develop a fully blown case of acrophobia while others are merely uncomfortable with heights.

    One last factor that is commonly discussed when examining the root cause of acrophobia is the matter of a person’s ability to maintain balance. This theory is based on the dysfunction model, meaning that the fear is caused by a dysfunction of the equilibrium or balance center. In simple terms, this school of thought states that if a person has poor balance, it is more likely that they will fall. Falling from a place that is high up provides the potential for death or injury; therefore, being high up causes the body to react as if it is in danger.

    Research on the causes of the fear of heights is ongoing. Like many anxiety disorders, the factors that come into play when discussing the root cause of a disorder are varied. Personal history and current medical condition should both be taken into consideration when examining the cause of this or any phobia.

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    Sources

    http://www.psychologistanywhereanytime.com/phobias_psychologist_and_psychologists/psychologist_acrophobia.htm

    http://www.medterms.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=9944

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