Developing a fear of heights later in life
Acrophobia is defined as a morbid fear of heights. When psychologists say "morbid phobia", they mean quite a bit more than what most of us might think of a "fear of heights". They mean something that is a "marked and persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable".
It's not entirely unreasonable to be afraid of falling off a rickety ladder or a slippery roof, is it? You might even say that someone who does not have that fear is being unreasonable and foolish.
Pedants are find of pointing out that we are not really afraid of heights or even of falling - we are afraid of hitting the ground, they say. As amusing as that observation may be to some, it isn't true. People with a fear of heights really are afraid of heights. The fear starts even if they only imagine being high up. Even a written description that only mentions heights tangentially can cause some discomfort.
There is another word to note in that definition: "persistent". Many who have experienced a minor fear of heights find that that their fear isn't persistent at all. It may come and go, being triggered in some situations and yet not in others. There may be subtle reasons for that, but it can be quite surprising to the persons whose actual reactions turn out to be much different from their expectation.
The Tobin Bridge
Sometimes I get uncomfortably close to panic while driving over Boston's Tobin bridge. I'm not sure this is a fear of heights; there is a separate term for being afraid of bridges: that's gephyrophobia.
It does seem to be specific to this particular bridge. I drive over higher, longer and older bridges without experiencing discomfort. Moreover, it also doesn't happen every time I cross the Tobin.
It might be that the Tobin seems to be constantly under construction. That may bother me subconsciously - can something that needs so much work be safe?
I've also read that certain subsonic sounds can trigger fear. It may be that on certain days the wind and temperature cause that bridge to produce a noise that upsets me unconsciously.
But it may also simply be that my brain decides to be afraid one day and does not on another. As I noted above, these irrational fears can be irrational in their comings and goings also.
I definitely was not afraid of heights as a child or young adult. The picture to the right is of a gas storage tank in Boston, made famous by controversy concerning the abstract painting that adorns it. That tank is 143 feet high. If you look closely at the picture, you can see a thin metal ladder (right hand side) that allows workers to reach the top.
I have been up ladders like that more than once. I had no fear and actually found the view rather exhilarating. Yet I cannot even look at that picture today without feeling a small amount of discomfort. If I actually imagine climbing that ladder, my feet will begin sweating almost immediately.
This late onset fear is apparently not at all unusual. When I Googled about, I found many people saying that their fear developed later in life and many psychologists confirmed that.
What I couldn't find is any good explanation of why.
Could it just be experience? I don't mean a really bad fall, but perhaps just enough small falls or dropping things that broke eventually add up to enough that your inner brain says "Hey - height is more dangerous than I thought" ?
Or that we become more aware of our own frailty as we get older - more realistic?
Or is it that we are simply smarter? Recent brain studies show that our frontal lobes (the part responsible for judgment) don't function as well early in life. The first reports in that are suggested that teens have immature brains, but later studies say that our frontal lobes may not be fully functional until age 30.
That might be related to late onset fear of heights.
Whatever the cause, the fear can interfere with our lives if it becomes too extreme.
While traveling in the lower part of Rhode Island, my wife and I wanted to cross over to Jamestown. My wife does not normally get too upset about bridges or heights, but when we approached the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge, she panicked and made an abrupt U-Turn against traffic. Her reaction was dangerous and of course also interfered with our plans - we had to drive up into Massachusetts and then go back down toward Jamestown to avoid that bridge.
It is possible to overcome fears like this. This generally involves cognitive behavioral therapy where the patient slowly learns to dampen the fear. A memory enhancing drug called d-cycloserine has been shown to improve therapy results - the thought is that the pleasant memories take precedence over the fears.
Do we really need to overcome minor fears like that exhibited by my wife?
The video above is extremely hard for me to watch. I get sweaty palms and feet almost immediately. I even feel a bit dizzy.
Many people have the same reaction - that is quite extreme and is not anything most of us need to do at any time in our lives.
I don't think my ordinary fears interfere with my life. I don't mind being reminded that climbing up to clean out my gutters is an activity where I should exercise caution. I may be a bit uncomfortable and wary, but I should be: a fall from a ladder can be very damaging. My feet and palms may be a little sweaty, but I can clean my gutters. Overall, I think it might be better to be a bit more frightened than not.
I didn't mind taking a long detour to reach Jamestown, either. Most bridges don't bother my wife and even I have to admit that the approach to that bridge is quite a sight. If she had a bit more time to make a decision, she might have been fine. It was the sudden appearance of a very large bridge that caused her emotional response.
A little fear in our lives is acceptable. I'm OK with it.
Here are some links I came across while researching this.
- Wikipedia Acrophobia
- Conquering the Fear of Height
- Fear of heights linked to vertical perception
- Fear of heights (sort of)
- Phobic Disorders
- Principles of Evolutionary Psychology
- The Teen Brain: It's Just Not Grown Up Yet
- Charting brain maturity