Acrophobia (from the Greek: ἄκρον, ákron , meaning "peak, summit, edge" and φόβος, phóbos, "fear") is an extreme or irrational fear of heights. It belongs to a category of specific phobias, called space and motion discomfort that share both similar etiology and options for treatment.
Most people experience a degree of natural fear when exposed to heights, especially if there is little or no protection. Those who are confident in such situations may be said to have a "head for heights".
Acrophobia sufferers can experience a panic attack in a high place and become too agitated to get themselves down safely. Between 2 and 5 percent of the general population suffer from acrophobia, with twice as many women affected as men.
"Vertigo" is often used (incorrectly) to describe a fear of heights, but it is more accurately a spinning sensation that occurs when one is not actually spinning. It can be triggered by looking down from a high place, or by looking straight up at a high place or tall object, but this alone does not describe vertigo. True vertigo can be triggered by almost any type of movement (e.g. standing up, sitting down, walking) or change in visual perspective (e.g. squatting down, walking up or down stairs, looking out of the window of a moving car or train). Vertigo is qualified as height vertigo when referring to dizziness triggered by heights.
Traditionally, acrophobia has been attributed, like other phobias, to conditioning or a traumatic experience involving heights. Recent studies have cast doubt on this explanation; fear of falling, along with fear of loud noises, is one of the most commonly suggested inborn or non-associative fears. The newer non-association theory is that fear of heights is an evolved adaptation to a world where falls posed a significant danger. The degree of fear varies and the term phobia is reserved for those at the extreme end of the spectrum. Researchers have argued that fear of heights is an instinct found in many mammals, including domestic animals and human beings. Experiments using visual cliffs have shown human infants and toddlers, as well as other animals of various ages, to be reluctant in venturing onto a glass floor with a view of a few meters of apparent fall-space below it. While an innate cautiousness around heights is helpful for survival, an extreme fear can interfere with the activities of everyday life, such as climbing up a flight of stairs or a ladder or even standing on a chair.
A possible contributing factor is dysfunction in maintaining balance. In this case the anxiety is both well founded and secondary. The human balance system integrates proprioceptive, vestibular and nearby visual cues to reckon position and motion. As height increases, visual cues recede and balance becomes poorer even in normal people. However, most people respond by shifting to more reliance on the proprioceptive and vestibular branches of the equilibrium system.
An acrophobic, on the other hand, continues to over-rely on visual signals whether because of inadequate vestibular function or incorrect strategy. Locomotion at a high elevation requires more than normal visual processing. The visual cortex becomes overloaded resulting in confusion. Some proponents of the alternative view of acrophobia warn that it may be ill-advised to encourage acrophobics to expose themselves to height without first resolving the vestibular issues. Research is underway at several clinics.
- In the 1958 film Vertigo, the main protagonist, retired detective John "Scottie" Ferguson (James Stewart) suffers from acrophobia, triggered by almost falling from a roof (and resulting in the fatal fall involving a fellow police officer who tries to help him as he hangs from the gutter, paralyzed by fear).
- In the 1977 film High Anxiety, Dr. Richard H. Thorndyke (Mel Brooks) is an institute manager who suffers from Acrophobia.
- In the 1980s sitcom Amen, Thelma Frye reveals her extreme fear of heights in the episode "Glen Garry Glen, Thelma" and has a panic attack when she has to go up to top floor of a high-rise apartment after becoming a real-estate agent.
- In the 2001 film Vanilla Sky, protagonist David Aames has acrophobia.
- In the Percy Jackson Series (Novels), Thalia Grace, daughter of Zeus, the god of the sky, suffers from acrophobia.
- In the 2013 film Planes, Dusty Crophopper had a paralyzing fear of heights which was overcome at the end of the film.
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