Eleven Strategies for Overcoming a Fear of Heights

If you feel afraid whenever you find yourself somewhere up high, this article is for you. We'll give you some useful tips to help you overcome your fears.
Eleven Strategies for Overcoming a Fear of Heights
Sergio De Dios González

Reviewed and approved by the psychologist Sergio De Dios González.

Last update: 16 January, 2024

Fear of heights, or acrophobia, affects a significant part of the population. It refers to the anguish that an individual experiences when seeing a void in front of them, where there’s a certain distance between them and the ground. Thus, simple activities like climbing a ladder, going on a Ferris wheel, taking a mountain walk, or any related activity always generates pathological fear.

For those who experience a fear of heights, the feelings are horrible. Added to these symptoms is a feeling of incompetence. This is often promoted by comments and even criticism from those around the individual who doesn’t suffer from that fear.

However, is it possible to overcome a fear of heights? Is there a way to deal with this kind of reaction? Let’s take a look at some more information about this condition and what strategies can be put in place to improve a sufferer’s quality of life.

“For every new height we reach, new and more bewildering dangers threaten us.”

-Henry Miller-

Man afraid of heights

Fear of heights or acrophobia

A study conducted by the Ludwig-Maximilians University, Germany in 2013 was published in the Journal of Neurology. It claimed that this disorder affects almost five percent of the population. In fact, the figure could even be higher, since not everyone takes the step of requesting help.

Another striking fact is that it affects women to a greater degree, especially those who are aged between 50 and 59 years. However, often, throughout their lives, sufferers have manifested, at some point, certain problems or feelings of anguish when they’re in these kinds of situations.

Since it’s not common for us to see ourselves in the kinds of situations when we’re in high places, we’re not always fully aware of this type of fear. It’s only at the crucial moment that the following symptoms arise:

  • Internal turmoil.
  • Feeling sick to the stomach.
  • Postural instability.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Feelings of panic, alarm, or threat.
  • Tachycardia.
  • Nausea, dizziness, and stomach pain.
  • Difficulty in thinking clearly.
  • The sensation of a lack of air or choking.

Vertigo and fear of heights

It’s important to note that vertigo isn’t the same as a fear of heights. Vertigo usually appears in patients who might have problems with their neck causing the ground and everything that surrounds it to start to spin. It’s an illusory sensation, which, although it usually also appears in acrophobia, doesn’t determine the disorder by itself.

A fear of heights often involves panic. In fact, there’s usually a feeling of alarm and a broader and more adverse symptomatology.

Possible causes of acrophobia

There are multiple causes of this fear. They vary from person to person. That said, there are some common triggers.

The fear of heights appeared for evolutionary purposes. In fact, it forms part of our survival instinct which is also present in other animal species. Nevertheless, some people are hypersensitive to this instinct and have developed it in an exaggerated way.

The origin of a fear of heights can also be related to traumatic experiences in scenarios where high altitude played a part. Consequently, the individual develops an irrational fear of them and their possible consequences.

Recent studies have linked acrophobia with the inner ear and our sense of balance. The latter integrates proprioceptive and vestibular sensations with visual cues. In these cases, fear isn’t only activated when we’re at a certain height, or we imagine to be, but our position has a lot to do with it. For example, we don’t experience the same sensations when faced with an abyss when we’re standing upright as when we’re sitting or lying down.

That said, having vertigo symptoms can be a trigger for this phobia, as it makes the sufferer not trust their natural sense of balance. This can generate a fear of heights.

How to deal with the fear of heights (acrophobia)

Acrophobia is one of the most common (and ancient) phobias. A study published in the Current Opinion in Neurology journal explains that this condition was mentioned in The Metamorphoses, when Ovid described Phaethon (mortal son of the sun god Helios) as being frightened and pale when driving the solar chariot. The reason was none other than his fear of heights.

However, despite the frequency of this problem, not many sufferers request help in dealing with it. This is rather surprising as it certainly affects the sufferer’s quality of life.

Here are some tips if you’re suffering from acrophobia.

1. Practice with virtual reality

You can’t expect your fear to go away by itself. If you fear something, no matter how irrational it may be, the solution isn’t to avoid it, but to face it, either in an extreme way or gradually.

Although extreme techniques for overcoming phobias have been widely used for years, it seems to be far more effective to do it gradually and voluntarily. One of the most popular and effective techniques used today is virtual reality.

A study conducted by the Department of Psychology of the University of Minho (Portugal), claims that, often, three sessions are enough to produce good results.

Woman with glasses and virtual reality mobile to treat fear of heights

2. Take a deep breath when fear overwhelms you

When fear, terror, and anxiety about being up high overwhelm you, take deep breaths to calm yourself down and take control. Try and breathe out slowly. If you can’t, try to hold your breath for a few seconds before exhaling. This forces your brain to think. It leaves aside the emotional reaction that takes over your thoughts and stops you from thinking.

One technique that works really well is to think of your fear as having a value on a scale of ten. Give it a score and feel its level drop as you breathe. Visualize it.

Assuming and identifying fear is the best way to combat it.

3. Forget your negative experiences from the past

Remembering unpleasant experiences in the past about heights only increases your fear and anxiety. If you remember the past, the fear you felt will condition your current experience.

Disengage from those memories and look forward. Thinking about the past will only reinforce your fear. On the other hand, calmly facing the future will help you feel that you can overcome it.

4. Prepare your mind

Man without fear of heights meditating on the mountain

When you think of heights, your mind may be predisposed to fear. That’s why you have to prepare yourself. Sit in a comfortable place and close your eyes. Focus on your breathing and pay attention to your exhalations. Then, visualize yourself in a high place, feeling calm and unafraid. Note how you enjoy the experience.

By doing this, you’ll program your brain to enjoy a pleasant experience. Moreover, thanks to conscious breathing, you’ll experience the control that you can exert over your feelings and sensations.

“If there is no fear, courage is worthless. The difficult thing is not not to be afraid, but to keep going in spite of it.”

-Alejandro Palomas-

5. Focus on your final destination

Some people, even though they may be afraid, face heights because they want to get to the top at all costs. If you’re able to put your goal before your fear, you can focus on it and not on your fear.

However, you might find that your problem reoccurs when you’re up there. So, what can you do? Your goal is to get down. This might cause dizziness so you must focus on your breathing and on each step, one by one. Don’t think about ‘the bottom’. Think of each step as a section along the road and that there’s nothing else below until you take the next step.

6. Enjoy your success

When you arrive, think about what you’ve achieved. You’ve surpassed yourself. Enjoy your feeling of success and keep it in mind. Next time you recall that memory, It’ll give you strength and motivation by reminding you that you can do it.

7. Talk about your fear with others

Putting your emotions into words is a great tool for managing them. Doing so will help you see fear from another perspective. It’ll give you external support in crisis situations and free you from the worry of giving a bad image when you fall prey to fear. Keep in mind that your environment can be a great help when you need it most.

8. Relax

One of the first things you must do to overcome your fear is to learn how to deal with stress. Therefore, below, we’ll give you some techniques to deal with it in a healthy and relaxed way through your breathing.

Diaphragmatic breathing

  1. Sit up straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen.
  2. Inhale and exhale for 20 seconds.
  3. Feel how your chest moves more than your stomach.
  4. Concentrate for three minutes until you feel the hand on your abdomen move more than the hand on your chest.
  5. Inhale deeply through your nose for seven seconds. Don’t breathe out. Hold it for three seconds in your belly.
  6. Finally, exhale through your mouth for seven more seconds.

Visualization Breathing

Get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and begin diaphragmatic breathing. As you inhale, imagine that all the stress is going from your extremities to your chest. Then, as you exhale, imagine the stress leaving your body through your breathing and dissipating right in front of you. Slowly and deliberately repeat the process.

9. Expose yourself gradually to your fear

Try to slowly and progressively expose yourself to higher altitudes. For example, you might want to start by simply studying on a second-story balcony. Next, you could try climbing a large hill and looking down at how far you’ve come. When you feel comfortable, continue exposing yourself to greater heights. Try to do it in the company of someone who can support you. However, don’t engage in dangerous and unsafe activities while you’re exposed to heights. Be sure you don’t put your physical integrity at risk.

10. Go to therapy

There are numerous schools of psychotherapy that can help you safely and gradually decrease your fear while teaching you how to control your anxiety. In the company of a therapist, you’ll learn to cope with the situation and relate differently to your thoughts and feelings.

11. Don’t feel ashamed

Don’t be ashamed. Accept your fear and start working on trying to eliminate it or at least reduce it. Remember that the first step to achieving change is to recognize what’s happening to you.

“It’s wonderfully human to be afraid.”

-Marc Levy-

To conclude, a fear of heights is a common condition but also one of the most treatable. We recommend that if you’re experiencing this problem, you should take the plunge and try a virtual reality session.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Brandt, T., & Huppert, D. (2014). Fear of heights and visual height intolerance. Current opinion in neurology27(1), 111-117.
  • Coelho, C. M., Santos, J. A., Silvério, J., & Silva, C. F. (2006). Virtual reality and acrophobia: one-year follow-up and case study. CyberPsychology & Behavior9(3), 336-341.
  • Huppert, D., Grill, E., & Brandt, T. (2013). Down on heights? One in three has visual height intolerance. Journal of neurology260(2), 597-604.
  • Menzies, R. G., & Clarke, J. C. (1993). The etiology of fear of heights and its relationship to severity and individual response patterns. Behaviour Research and Therapy31(4), 355-365.
  • Sierra, J. C., Ortega, V., & Zubeidat, I. (2003). Ansiedad, angustia y estrés: tres conceptos a diferenciar. Revista mal-estar e subjetividade3(1), 10-59.
  • Whitney, S. L., Jacob, R. G., Sparto, P. J., Olshansky, E. F., Detweiler-Shostak, G., Brown, E. L., & Furman, J. M. (2005). Acrophobia and pathological height vertigo: indications for vestibular physical therapy?. Physical Therapy85(5), 443-458.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.