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Fear of Heights (sort of)

by Brian Dunning, Jan 13 2011

After making sport of Daniel Loxton and calling him a big pansy on Twitter for his fear of flying, I thought I should make amends by admitting my own fear of heights… or what to me seems to be some kind of related phobia, because it's not really a fear of being in a high place.

Proper acrophobia is the irrational fear of falling, and I probably have this. I'm as skittish as anyone gets when it comes to being someplace from where one might possibly fall. I was the only one in the group in Sydney who refused to attempt climbing up the Harbor Bridge, and I can barely watch the infamous YouTube video (shown below) about climbing the 1768-foot radio tower.

No, I am quite satisfied to remain on the ground. I do very well on the ground and away from edges, and am perfectly satisfied to remain so, with no burning desire to expand my horizons.

However flying doesn't bother me at all. I've even flown ultralight aircraft, where you're strapped to a tiny plastic seat with nothing below your feet, and been perfectly comfortable. I've never skydived but would not hesitate. Some things tend to trigger it, and some things don't.

Perhaps the strangest manifestation is that looking up at tall objects, even when standing on terra firma, can produce the same sensation. It happens sometimes, not always, with no clear pattern. I've had trouble driving out to Palm Springs because the highway passes through a windmill farm with gigantic windmill towers. One of the worst incidents I remember was getting stuck in traffic on the lower deck of the old San Francisco Bay Bridge, when visible off to one side was a tower from the then-under-construction new bridge. Just being in the air, and seeing another tower nearby, triggered the response. I practically had a panic attack for about the goofiest reason imaginable.

When this happens, the sensation is exactly what one might expect to feel when hanging by one's fingers and about to fall. Sweaty palms, ticklish feet, panic, the whole nine yards. But it's inconsistent. Practically every time one of my friends tries to have a bit of fun with me and points out that I'm standing near an edge or a tower, they're disappointed; it's of no concern to me.

Some have suggested this might be vertigo, but it's not. Vertigo is an inner ear condition characterized by a spinning, dizzying sensation triggered by everyday actions like standing up, sitting down. I've never felt spinny or dizzy.

So there it is. It's really weird and I'd love to know more about it. Most phobias make a certain amount of sense. Falling to one's death is not advantageous, but there's no evolutionary reason to panic at the sight of a windmill, at least not that I'm conscious of. Shed me some light or share your own terror, and join me in commiserating with Mr. Loxton.

53 Responses to “Fear of Heights (sort of)”

  1. Glen Wolfram says:

    Same here. I can be on the ground, look up at a tall building and lose my balance just a bit.
    Weird is the sensation in an open building like the Seattle Space Needle. Looking out from the open area onto the city, no problem. Glance up at the rest of the tower, uh oh.

  2. GoneWithTheWind says:

    I prefer to say I am not afraid of hieghts but that my grip gets stronger as I climb higher.

  3. Mike says:

    You describe exactly the same pattern of fears as I’ve experienced most of my life – don’t like heights, not bothered by aeroplanes, and can get dizzy looking up into a bunch of skyscrapers as happened to me once in New York City. I don’t even like watching people near cliffs, building tops etc on video.

    I remember mounting the rather horrible ancient slate stairs on the Irish island crag called Skellig Michael, which takes you up to equally ancient monastic dwellings. At some point I came to a plateau where all I could see was blue sky coming off every edge (a quarter turn was necessary to continue the ascent). I just froze up and had to regain my composure for the descent, then “arse-ing it” down the steep stairs.

    Oh and I don’t like going downhill on bicycles.

  4. Mark Edward says:

    Funny thing. I never had any fear of heights until I saw the Mel Brooks film “High Anxiety.” Go figure. Why that particular film started a phobia that still bugs me to this day is uncertain. But even thinking about being on a tower or on the edge of a high building just gives me a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. I even get freaked at hotel high diving boards.

    And why is it that people of Americian Indian descent supposedly have no fear of heights and can run around on top of unfinished buidings and girders without any problem? Is this an urban myth or what?

    I also wonder if there is a cure for this sort of “phobia?” A part of me would really like to be able to sky dive or climb up a tower just to rid myself of such fears.

    And here’s another strange tie-in: Ever since I can remember, I have had an repeated image/anxiety issue that continues to plague me everytime I see the type of tall radio tower like the one in the video. I don’t know if it’s a dormant memory of the famous “RKO Radio” film opener (with the Morse code beeps)that stuck in my mind for some reason or… maybe I’m fated to see that image as my final breath is drawn? Hmmmm. Could this be some kind of a psychic precognitive warning? Or maybe I was dropped on my head while watching the opening seconds of “Gunga Din?”

  5. CanRelate says:

    That’s crazy I am the same way, love to fly and when I do I always try and get the window seat. Never sky dived either but always kind of wanted to try. However, get me by an edge or something tall and I start to panic. I never thought it was a fear of heights and I have had people say it might be vertigo but never really bought that.

    I think you summed it up best “When this happens, the sensation is exactly what one might expect to feel when hanging by one’s fingers and about to fall. Sweaty palms, ticklish feet, panic, the whole nine yards.”

  6. Corey says:

    I have something quite similar.

    Flying is no problem. Skydiving is no problem, as is rappelling into caverns, etc. Climbing trees is no problem. There never is a problem provided that I am able to devote 100% of my energies into “not falling”.

    Stairwells are a problem. Looking over balconies are a problem. I am less nervous if there is some object like a railing that is at or above my center of gravity. The unifying principle seems to be “if someone snuck up behind me and pushed me, would I fall?”

    Where it gets interesting is that, while I can be very uncomfortable in any of the situations above, I’m far more uncomfortable watching someone else do the same thing. So much so that I’d rather do it myself than have to watch them.

    A friend with something similar summed it up like this: it’s not a fear of falling, it’s a fear of JUMPING.

    • Leland Witter says:

      That’s what I have, a fear of jumping. Heights don’t bother me, but at times I can deeply imagine what it would be like jumping, and I have the sensation of WANTING to. It happened a couple of weeks ago on my apartment balcony four stories up. I could intensely visualize hopping the railing and felt like I might. I needed to go inside. A little while later I could go back out and I was fine.

  7. Dennis Skala says:

    Comedian Steven Wright used to claim that he wasn’t afraid of heights, but widths terrified him.

  8. Oldskool says:

    I have a similar fear, when standing at the top of large structures, or natural edges,or at the bottom looking up, obscurely, at times), it is the oft-quoted feeling of wanting to jump. The worst occasion was standing on the edge of Kannanra Walls, (part of the Megalong rift Valley in the Blue Mountains, and I really had to step back from an (almost) overwhelming urge to jump. How is that evolutionarily advantageous?

    Oh, I get it…

  9. Citizen Wolf says:

    Tsk Brian, you big pansy!

  10. What I loathe more than anything else is when people give others a hard time (non-jokingly, as yours was to Daniel) about their phobias. By definition phobias are irrational fears, yet some people expect those who have phobias to justify it. How does one justify something that’s irrational?

    I dislike edges too, but only when I’m not secured. A nice sturdy railing or not-overly-long safety rope) is more than enough to calm my nerves. With the safety rope it needs to be something I know is strong and as long as it’s enough to stop me from leaning out to far it’s fine, so abseiling is something I am more than happy to do. Without either of those though, can’t go anywhere near an edge.

    My real phobias are crowds and small enough spaces to have my movement restricted. I’ve had panic attacks at Mind Body Wallet due to the number of people, and could only go caving if there weren’t any small spaces we would have to crawl through.

  11. tmac57 says:

    Ok, here’s an odd one.I went to see ‘Natural Born Killers’ starring Woody Harrelson,when it 1st came out,and during the introductory scene,where he and Juliette Lewis were shooting up a diner, I got nauseated, and almost had to leave the theater.While it was violent,it wasn’t as bad as many films that I had seen before or after,but there was just something really creepy about that movie.
    Now here is the phobia part.After that time,for about a year,every time I went to a movie,I started having a sort of anticipatory panic attack,and couldn’t sit through an entire movie without having to get up and leave the auditorium, for at least a few minutes.It didn’t matter what kind of movie it was either.I even had an attack in a Disney Pixar flick.Eventually,it went away,but the whole incident was pretty eyeopening.

  12. Jacob says:

    I wouldn’t say I have a phobia of heights, but free-climbing like that would make me shit my pants. How do they build these towers? I don’t think there are 1700ft cranes. Do they just pull it up the side of the tower as they build it?

    • Zenn says:

      They use a Gin pole or smaller tower attached to the tower and as it gets higher, it is raised. Free climbing is not allowed and they would be fired. They need to be tied off 100% of the time.

      It wasn’t the height but the motion that gets me and the fear of slipping without being tied off. If the upper climber dropped something like a tool, the lower climber could easily get knocked out and fall.

  13. Paul V Ruggeri says:

    I discovered my fear of heights about 20 years ago while hiking thru the woods near Boston. There was an old broken down railroad bridge spanning a gully w a stream. The gully was maybe 30 ft across and maybe 15 to 20 feet deep. The remnants of the bridge were mostly the stone foundations on either side, but with a single rusted iron rail spanning the ten feet between them. No big deal you would think, and my friend pranced right across easy as you please. I started to do likewise but made the mistake of looking down, and my vision did a funny thing… Everything stretched! The gully looked 10 times deeper than I knew it to be, and my world was teetering and spinning! It really was just like the opening scene in the movie Vertigo. It took me half an hour to crawl across on my belly with my eyes tightly shut (Though oddly, I paused once to take some photos downwards w my Nikon FG, though I did not remember it until I developed the film!). Ever since then, I get a similar feeling when I am anywhere near a precipice – I even get a touch of vertigo at the top of a local geographical feature called the Big Blue Hill – it’s about 500 feet high and several miles wide – Terra Firma enough, you’d think, but not to my phobia…

  14. Paul V Ruggeri says:

    Another distinctly *odd* phobia I developed shortly after 9/11: I began to get REALLY uneasy about people walking behind me. (Only if I knew they were there, of course!). I could be walking down the street, and walk past someone, or if they came out of a doorway or turned a corner shortly after I passed it – it made me absolutely uneasy that they were there. I would have to stop, turn and look at them to be sure they weren’t a threat, and often either let them pass or suddenly turn around and walk in a different direction to avoid feeling ‘shadowed’. Walking down city streets were a B**CH! I eventually found that walking very fast gave me no chance for this feeling to creep up on me. Very strange, very irrational, and after a couple of years, it passed. It had nothing to do with the circumstances of 9/11, but it was odd how it just sort of developed shortly afterwards…

    And yet? I’m not nuts!(Much)

  15. Alan says:

    Actually, irrational fear of heights is called acrophobia, not acrobia. I have it too and it’s a serious handicap when you are surrounded by mountains and have to cross high bridges whatever the direction (I live in Switzerland)… That youtube video is one of the worst things I have ever seen. 7:47 minutes of absolute torture :(

  16. I have precisely the same syndrome. I describe it not as fear of heights but as fear of the sudden, irrational urge to jump, or at least to do something really stupid. I fear, in other words, I might be bitten by what Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse.”

    So, I’m perfectly comfortable on the outdoor observation deck of the Empire State Building, entirely surrounded by a sturdy wire cage, but I get palpitations if I have to wait in line for that last elevator up, somewhere high up in the tower, when I can see the Chrysler Building through an ordinary sash window. All I have to do, I think, is cross the room, throw open the sash, and . . .

    I shudder to think of it.

    I once found myself staying in one of the hollow hotels in Atlanta, the one with an atrium 500 feet tall, with open walkways around the perimeter. My room was on the 24th floor. I found myself unable to sleep, afraid I might sleepwalk . . .

  17. MadScientist says:

    Wow – that’s some radio tower. I wish it were in my neighborhood so I could climb it. I’ve only been up a tiny 400ft radio tower built for an ionosonde. It was one of those quick-assemble trestle things and was only 3ft at the base. It was great fun even in light breeze – you could feel the tower sway and then stop as the guy wires were pulled taut, and as the breeze eased the tower sprung back the other way. No one is allowed to climb just for kicks though – you’ve got to be one of the maintenance guys to have that fun.

    Not climbing the Sydney harbor bridge – now that’s almost as chicken as being afraid to fly. It’s no fun – there are screens everywhere and they make you clip onto a kite line. I couldn’t even have a bit of fun by pretending to lose balance and dangling in mid air by the safety gizmo because there wouldn’t be anywhere where I could actually fall.

    • Zenn says:

      I’ve been up a 500′ guyed communications tower. If the tower moved with the wind that much, the guys were not tensioned properly.

  18. LovleAnjel says:

    Brian, we are in a similar boat. I can’t look at some tall structures (roller coasters, towers with outside ladders) but I can look at others (skyscrapers, windmills). Sometimes at height I’m okay, sometimes I’m not. I get panicky even thinking about the Grand Canyon walkway. I’m not scared of hitting the ground, but of the experience of falling towards it (hitting the ground would make it end, so that’s the good part of the fatal fall). Watching the scene in The Matrix when Neo had to jump off the skyscraper gets me every time.

    The fear is an out-of-proportion response to stimuli we have found upsetting. If you’re scared of doing something that affected you earlier in your life (being nauseated in a movie, after eating a certain food, feeling like you were going to drown in a pool) then your brain avoids future danger by starting a fight-or-flight/disgust response when it comes back up. It was just a way for our ancestors to avoid repeating their mistakes.

    I love it when people try to talk someone out of a phobia. If we could control the anxiety by rationalization, we would have done it already!

  19. Fear of falling is a little different from many more specific phobias, because it has been shown to be hardwired into the primitive brain, and exists even in very young babies. Hence no normal person is entirely without it, although many people can become so accustomed to it as to feel very little actual fear, and even to be careless in circumstances when they should be careful. Evolutionary theory might be used to account for this, in that we were originally an arboreal species, and babies not at all fearful of falling would usually die young.

    I’ve had about an average fear of falling, I would think; but I took up rock climbing 30 years ago, and found that I enjoy the psychological action of working through, temporarily overcoming, this very primitive fear. Now I can function rationally and force myself to act even in extreme falling-exposure situations, but the fear itself is still in me, and that’s a good thing.

    If it bothers you enough, there are desensitization programs that could reduce it. Might be an interesting experiment: stand near an edge while harnessed and securely anchored, or do some rappelling – does the fear reduce or go away as if you were in an airplane? It does with me – a very definite on/off switch there.

  20. I don’t think my fear of heights is disproportionately larger than average. I’m not overfond, but fear of heights is probably an evolutionarily advantageous adaptation so most people probably have it to a degree.

    My phobia is fish. I don’t like being in lakes. I’m ok with the beach most of the time. I spent a few weeks at a beach every summer and I know how rare it is to have fish swim by your legs (not especially rare, but rarer than at the lake in my phobia). I can’t stand next to a fish tank with fish that are big enough to be eaten. My world bends around me when I do.

    I’ve always disliked touching fish, so when I fished, I’d have to fish with someone who was willing to do all the dehooking, cleaning, and filleting. The phobia itself is a more recent development. I think it started from catching a flounder in the Daytona Beach bay. Those suckers are weird. I’m not sure that’s where it started, but based on the time frame, it seems reasonable.

  21. Hammer Time says:

    Maybe the sheer size of the buildings make you feel insignificant. I get that same feeling when I think of the ocean, or space. Vastness spooks me.

  22. SkepLit says:

    My wife has the phobia which manifested in her 30’s. We were walking up to the Washington Monument and I was admiring it and trying to figure out how to get a picture. I look around and saw my wife sitting against the base of the wall looking back towards the Capitol. I asked her to stand up for the photo and she told me, “no”. Turns out the height of the thing totally terrified her. Same thing happened at the Jefferson Memorial that night. She walked in, looked up, put her back against a wall and slid to the ground. I had to take her hand and guide her out while she stared directly at her feet.

    • mangotango9 says:

      Oh god.. I’m in 8th grade right now, and our whole grade is going to Washington D.C. for a class trip… My History teacher said we’re going to the top of the Monument. I am completely terrified to death of heights. I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do when the time comes………..

  23. Jim Shaver says:

    Brian, dagnabbit, I’m sitting here with sweaty palms, even five minutes after watching that tower-climbing video!

    My theory as to why many of us are acrophobic: We like being alive! Looking out the window of an airplane, for example, we know we are in no real danger of falling to our death, so it’s no big deal. But standing on the edge of a precipice or hanging onto the side of a high tower — darn it, now they’re sweating again!

  24. Mike says:

    On a practical level, my acrophobia is worst when I am driving on mountain roads with an incredible drop-off and no side-barrier. It’s not unusual for such roads to be only just wide enough for two cars to pass each other, which means I have to – almost in a panic attack – edge very slowly towards the side to let a vehicle past me.

    I last encountered one of these in the Pyrenees a few months back, and it’s not a minor road. There was nowhere that I could turn around, and so I had a half hour of white-knuckled descent in the outer lane.

  25. tmac57 says:

    Here’s a fun one! It contains heights,flying,and high voltage!

  26. tmac57 says:

    Brian D. said-

    I’ve never skydived but would not hesitate.

    Then would you be OK trying this?

  27. Mike says:

    @17 “Not climbing the Sydney harbor bridge – now that’s almost as chicken as being afraid to fly. ”

    I don’t even like walking across the bridge’s pedestrian path because of the gratings that let you see all the way down.

  28. Max says:

    The first time I tried snorkeling, it felt so wrong to breathe underwater, I could only do it for a few seconds at a time, but I got over it with practice, though I’m not sure it’s a good idea to suppress the reflex to hold my breath underwater.
    Also, ultrasonic teeth cleaning, where you’re tilted and getting water in your throat, reminds me a little of waterboarding.

  29. Dustin says:

    I’m the opposite. Ski lifts, rock climbing. These things don’t bother me. But I literally had a panic attack on a plane once. I HATE flying. I don’t think it has anything to do with heights, but with the complete lack of control. I’ve probably seen one too many plane crashes in movies before too.

    But a million times worse is my arachnophobia. If my fear of large spiders wasn’t so paralyzing, I would knock over old ladies and small children to escape one. I can’t explain it at all either. I don’t even mind large insects. But the sight of a tarantula makes me want to evacuate my bowels. There could be a breed of tarantula whose bite gives one the greatest orgasm ever experienced and the sight of it would still make scream until I no longer had a voice.

  30. mickeyjs12 says:

    You know, I have always said I had a fear of heights but you are right, it is a fear of falling that freaks me out.
    When I was a kid one of my neighbors put me on a ledge that was above the door to our apt building. The ledge was very narrow and even though I had plenty of room it started to get smaller the longer I was up their. He finally came back over an hour later and got me down and ever since I have had trouble with heights. I had a really bad panic attack watching an old Popeye cartoon where they were doing a trapeze act. Every time they flew threw the air I thought I was going to throw up, that is when I knew I had a problem.
    Like most of you I love to fly and have to have a window seat so I can look out. As long as I feel safe I have no problem but if I feel that I can fall I start to panic. This really sucks when I love to look out from tall buildings. As long as the windows are not floor to ceiling or if they are they have some sort of railing I am fine, other wise I have to enjoy the view from a distance.

  31. Mike Schibly says:

    You didn’t look too scared atop that exposed pluton in Joshua Trees National Park last weekend.

    My father had the same fear of “heights” — he couldn’t climb above the first platform of forest fire-watch towers, panicked even when others walked near the edge of observation platforms, etc. And he was a pilot in the Air Force, and flew his own plane until very late in life. He claimed it was the perspective lines that did it — the edge of the tower or building that ran all the way to the ground. Take away that perspective referent, and he didn’t have a problem — so flying was no sweat.

  32. Mike Schibly says:

    That “you” in my previous comment refers to Mike Shermer.

  33. brad tittle says:

    Before my children were born, stories of children in peril didn’t bother me much. After the first one came, when I saw a child being pulled out of an icy river on the news or a story of a child having been hit by a car, my body would respond similarly to what Brian describes. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes without doing it has to be involved in the terror.

  34. John Ellis says:

    I am a retired neurologist. As such, I have taken care of thousands of people who were perfectly fine one minute, and with no warning were unconscious or incapacitated by a seizure, migraine, stroke, cataplexy, syncope (fainting), vertigo, or other loss of muscle control. Over time I have also developed the same weak-legged/panic attack feeling described in this thread being in or viewing others in situations where a sudden loss of control of themselves would result in disaster – a high ledge or walking a high girder, driving over a high bridge, but not flying in a plane. I think that is hyper-rational, rather than irrational.

    As an aside, I must add that if someone gets “dizzy” every time they put their head back to look up – that could be a sign of kinking or disease of their vertebral arteries and should not be ignored.

  35. Craig says:

    Very similar. Climbing ladders, or even standing on chairs, is a big challenge. But strap me into an airplane and I’ll happily roll it inverted. (When legal and in the proper sort of plane, of course.) I’ve always called it a fear of falling rather than of heights. That tower video makes my palms sweat. It’s a good mirror neuron workout. I don’t have the experience of reacting to tall objects, though.

  36. Phi says:

    Panic attacks and vertigo were brought on in me in part by a diagnosed chronic vitamin B deficiency – In addition I do have a very slight ,and episodic, inner ear problem that sometimes affects my feeling of balance if I alter the orientation of my head suddenly, like lying down and turning on my side or looking straight up at a tall building.

    In my case I think these occasional events have led to a fear of their re-occurance – so the sight of a tall structure can trigger subconscious fears.

    When I first came to Australia from Europe i was not used to being in tall buildings. I found getting in a lift to work on the 18th floor quite disconcerting and disorientating

    Here in Sydney we get very occasional tremors. I don’t think we build for major events of this kind but surely 911 showed that skyscrapers generally aren’t that safe when something goes badly wrong and our fears and phobias aren’t entirely ungrounded in reality

  37. Diane says:

    My fear of heights kicks in with situations of “edges” all previous bloggers have mentioned, but in addition, if there is a narrow (or even fairly wide) wood plank over a body of water, even if it’s not far from the water, I freeze and can’t go on. The further out I go the worse the panic. My body just feels like it has no control and that even if I take a one-inch step, that I will lose my balance and fall over the side. This can happen with piers, bridges or planks of any sort. Also, if I’m on an escalator, I have to go on the inside side rather than the side that looks down a ways.
    When I was young I used to dive off high dives and then one day I thought about falling and how easy it would be to slip, and that was the end of that.

  38. I would never put myself on a position where I would stand on the edge of the building or climb up in a tree. Looking on the ground and how high I’m at make my body shiver and my knees tremble in fear.

  39. David says:

    This one makes my balls cringe!!!

  40. Bruce says:

    I’ve been bungee jumping, flying in small planes and to the top of the CN tower and never had a problem. There are some cliffs near where I live with about a 100 foot drop. Every time I get close to the edge I always wonder what it would be like to jump off and can feel my body almost pushing me in that direction. I always think “What the hell is wrong with me?” afterwards. Apparently this phobia is a lot more common than I thought.