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Developing a fear of heights later in life

Tony Lawrence was born in 1948 and spent most of his career as a self-employed computer troubleshooter for Unix systems.

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.

Tobin Bridge, Boston MA.  This is where I sometimes experience gephyrophobia

Tobin Bridge, Boston MA. This is where I sometimes experience gephyrophobia

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.

The famous Boston Gas Tank with its "Rainbow Swash" is 143 feet in height.

The famous Boston Gas Tank with its "Rainbow Swash" is 143 feet in height.

Late onset

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.

Learning caution

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?

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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.

Rhode Island's Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge

Rhode Island's Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge

Overcoming fear

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?

Reasonable fear

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.

  1. Wikipedia Acrophobia
  2. Gephyrophobia
  3. Conquering the Fear of Height
  4. Fear of heights linked to vertical perception
  5. Fear of heights (sort of)
  6. Phobic Disorders
  7. Principles of Evolutionary Psychology
  8. The Teen Brain: It's Just Not Grown Up Yet
  9. Charting brain maturity


Carol Morris on May 17, 2016:

I too, have developed a fear of heights. The worst part is that my kids don't realize how "cool" I used to be.

Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on April 11, 2013:

Wow - that is extreme!

Kez84 on April 11, 2013:

Over the last year I have developed quite a severe and totally unfounded fear of heights. In the past I used to quite happily climb large cliffs in the peak district, abseil and loved roller coasters. Now I can have panic attacks trying to get on an escalator in a shopping mall. I regularly wake up in the night in an extreme panic because I have had a dream where I am stood at the side of a cliff. I cannot watch any tv programme showing a view from a large height despite attempting to force myself to watch and deal with this fear. I only managed to get to 1 minute 20 seconds through the video above before I couldn't cope with it and had to turn it off. I wish there was a way to deal with this effectively or that I knew why this had happened to me. Its such a pain to not be able to enjoy myself the way I used to with my kids because "Mum's too scared". I will turn 30 next year and hope so much that this does not continue to rapidly get worse the way it has in the last year!!

Peter L Collins on January 22, 2013:

Ah, Tony, excellent work.

Yes, we know that the incomplete, maturing brain has less complete assessment of risk. Probably an evolutionary plus, because often great gains come from taking risks.

I experienced genuine, 'fall-down-as-if-drunk' vertigo for the first time a couple of years ago. Now I'm REALLY cautious on ladders. And my arms will only support me for so long, so vertical ladders have got to be short or I will plummet for an absolute certainty.

With skiing, my fear has diminished as my skill increased. Looking down what used to seem vertical now has become more objectively assessed.

Flying a microlight plane is no problem (despite my fear of ladders - and roofs), even learning to fly at age 73 (two years ago). Now I go to 13,500' (after which oxygen masks are mandatory) and look down at the ground, 2.5 miles below, with no concern at all. Being a statistician (at one time) helps, I think, for I know how many accidents and deaths are due to being that far from the ground (none), and I know what to make of that! Though I admit I keep by seat belt on, especially in an open plane!

Oh, my view is that it IS a fear of impact underlying a fear of falling underlying a fear of heights. I have no proof, but my own feelings are that if I'm sure I won't fall, I have no fear, regardless of the height. But if I know that even a small fall (say 8' onto concrete) will likely injure me, I get scared shitless going there.

Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on January 25, 2012:

Reassuring that you aren't alone.. still not pleasant :)

Angie Jardine from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on January 25, 2012:

Thanks for this heads-up, Pcunix ... my husband has recently discovered he is afraid of heights. Now 63 it has just come on in the last few years ... as a youth he was quite an action man and could abseil etc with the best of them.

Now, thanks to you, we know it is a known phenomena and that's reassuring.

itsmonkeyboy from London, UK on December 12, 2011:

As a youth I was always climbing something. My father was a builder so I spent plenty of time up high on scaffolding. I used to climb and abseil with the scouts. Despite all this I believe I always had a fear of heights, I was just able to overcome it. Over the years though I've begun to avoid heights, I always felt this was more to do with my age and that I no longer feel the need to prove myself - especially as a peer may have done. I like to think I could still overcome my fear of heights, but am no longer scared of being scared if that makes sense.

Great hub though, I thought I may have been a little strange, which I probably am and has nothing to do with this conversation, but I'm pleased I'm not the only one who has developed a greater fear of heights later in life. Thank you for sharing.

Jimmie Quick from Memphis, TN USA on December 08, 2011:

I didn't dare press play on that video. I get woozy from those kinds of things.

I agree with you that fear is often a sign of maturity. We realize we are not immortal.

John Holden on December 08, 2011:

Did it surprise me? At the time it more than surprised me ~ shocked would be better word.

I don't recall anybody else having such an instant reaction.

Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on December 08, 2011:

I can see why that would bring on fear.

Karla Iverson from Oregon on December 08, 2011:

Another good hub. I'm also afraid of heights. I've had a slight fear of heights since I was a child. However, I was always able to overcome it if it interfered with whatever I needed to do. Then I was working on my house about 12 years ago, and the ladder collapsed. I was bruised from head to toe and broke my wrist in 7 places. Now, I'm afraid of heights even more, and I'm just going with it. No more heights for me. I think, for some of us, it's Mother Nature's way of saying, "Stay on the valley floor, dummy."

P.S. I didn't watch the video.

Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on December 08, 2011:

Did that surprise you or had you known others who had experienced that sudden onset?

John Holden on December 08, 2011:

In my younger days heights didn't bother me. I wouldn't say I was fearless but no more so than walking down a busy road. I would scamper about on roofs all day long.

Then one day my daughter was born. The following day I went to work, climbed about six rungs of the ladder and came back down again.

Thirty odd years later and I'm still uneasy on a stepladder!

Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on December 08, 2011:

I was really surprised when I started developing this fear. I didn't realize how common it is to acquire it later in life.

twodawgs on December 08, 2011:

Interesting that you posted that particular video. I saw it a few months ago, and when I saw the title of your hub, that was what immediately came to my mind.

I am normally not afraid to be high up. I have always loved to fly, jump off of high-dives at the pool, go on rides at amusement parks, etc. Being in high places usually gives me a kind of buzz that is normally kind of pleasant and exhilarating to me - as long as I know that whatever machine or other structure that got me there is mechanically sound.

But watching this video truly gave me that feeling of panic. I was so fascinated by it, and the feeling I got from it, that I watched it several times. Kinda sick, huh? I had to keep reminding myself that I was sitting safely in the comfort of my home office.

Tony Lawrence (author) from SE MA on December 08, 2011:

Well, wariness of heights is universal (except perhaps in some brain damaged individuals) but actual fear definitely isn't.

Infopedia from Worldwide on December 08, 2011:

I thought the fear of heights and falling is something each and every human experiences.

A nice hub though...


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