"A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me. I'm afraid of widths." - Steven Wright
This joke by Steven Wright points up what's important and unique about acrophobia, or fear of heights, compared to other phobias. Falling from a great height can result in injury or death. It's not necessarily an unreasonable fear. Every year, the Darwin Awards seem to include someone who would've benefited from more fear of heights. This past year for example included a man who died doing a solo bungee jump off a bridge. It seems he neglected to measure the length of his bungee cords, which were longer than the bridge’s height.
Acrophobia can actually be a crippling condition that makes no sense in certain contexts. It can include a person who is afraid to ride up an elevator to the 25th floor, take an airplane, or climb a ladder to change a lightbulb. Such a fear can get in the way of work, pleasure or relationships. If there is little to no chance that a person can get hurt in a situation or activity that has to do with heights, then fear in that context is certainly unreasonable and can be helped by hypnosis.
What causes fear of heights?
What causes acrophobia depends on the individual, and that's why it's important, after ruling out physical causes, to work with a hypnotherapist who will spend time assessing your unique situation. There may be one cause or several. Fear of heights could be brought on by a previous trauma, like the character in the famous Hitchcock movie “Vertigo,” which follows the story of a man who became afraid of heights after watching a fellow policeman fall from the roof of an apartment building. The fear might also be symbolic. High places might represent success in a career or being noticed in some positive way. Therefore, the fear is not so much about places or activities but about self-esteem. Perhaps a client doesn't feel deserving of success. On the flip side, a client may have too much success in a career that is for some reason unsatisfying or unwanted. Lastly, the fear could be tied to some previous event which appears to have no direct relation to high places. For example, let's say a mother is particularly worried about the health of her child. Being in a tall building, for example, might cause her to imagine falling from such a place. Because she's afraid of sudden death in general - losing her child or of dying before her child - she can't bear to be in that kind of environment.
How does hypnotherapy help someone with a fear of heights?
In treatment, the therapist will help the client change the emotional relationship to the cause, as well as to heights in general, with the goal being for the client to behave rationally and neutrally with respect to tall places. This means the client would take rational precautions in the real world and be able to assess the true danger of any situation involving heights. In safe situations, the client should feel no fear at all.
The number of sessions required would depend upon the individual and the nature of the cause of the fear. A person whose acrophobia resulted from severe trauma and who is dealing with PTSD might take longer to help than someone who is modeling a fear generated by parents but which has no practical cause. In general, clients achieve a goal in 3 to 10 sessions.
Hypnosis is basically focused attention facilitated by deep relaxation. It is neither magic nor a passive process. Hypnotherapy really helps clients heal themselves. A client who does not want to change cannot be changed. Results happen more easily and quickly when a client is highly motivated, fully dedicated to improvement, and carries out what I like to call "accelerators." These are activities that facilitate reprogramming the mind, like listening to recordings specifically designed for the client or keeping a journal. In my work, I make sure clients fully understand how hypnotherapy works so they can fully engage in the process.
Depending on the nature of the acrophobia, the client may be asked to engage in small tests to see how progress is going. For example, after so many sessions, a client may be asked to return to a location that traditionally brings on fear. If the fear is gone, a client may opt to discontinue sessions. But the more likely scenario is that the fear is still there but has changed. This would mean that there is more than one reason for the fear. The client’s experience reflects the fear as it exists in that place in time, but minus whatever limiting belief has been cleared away. In some cases, clients are given what is called an “anchor.” An anchor is a physical action - like touching something - that helps the hypnotherapist embed positive or neutral emotions in the client's nervous system. When the client appears in a trying situation or activity, they simply "trigger the anchor.” Anchors are used by athletes to achieve positive status of performance. Just as Tiger Woods used the anchor of gripping his golf club to induce a state of flow and positive performance, so can an acrophobia client use holding the index finger and thumb together to call up a feeling of self assurance and safety.
In the movie “Vertigo,” a psychiatric doctor tells the main character that the only way for him to cure his acrophobia is to endure another trauma worse than the first one. Happily, that was 1950s fiction and not reality. Hypnosis is an extremely pleasant experience. And, while hypnotherapy may bring out buried emotions in a client, the experience is far from traumatic and always results in neutral or pleasant associations with the core issue. The goal is to help the client reverse limited or false beliefs and replace them with a positive belief system that allows the client to function successfully.
Better still, once a client discovers they have mastered their fear of heights, they often discover that other fears or false beliefs have also been reversed. Thanks to their hypnotherapy sessions, more and more, day by day, they feel at ease, safe and secure in tall places and on the ground.