Since 2006 Will4Adventure have been running courses to help people find a cure to a fear of heights. Over those years we have adapted and improved our course and learned quite a few things about the people we have worked with.
Over the years we have learned that a fear of heights is crippling for thousands of people in everyday walks of life in many different forms. We have had a stunt-lady who can ride horses two at a time bare back but who could not proceed in her career for her phobia of heights; a lady who couldn’t face walking into a stadium for the closing procession of the London 2012 Olympics; office workers who can’t cross covered walk ways; an intern headed to New York City who couldn’t face the view from the window plus so many more. If you’re reading this following a search on Google, you can be sure you’re in good company!
(Some people incorrectly describe their condition as vertigo – but this is actually a medical condition associated with the inner ear).
In our brain we have an acorn-sized part in the middle and at the back called the amygdala. In moments of high stress where our reactions have to be heightened and quick, and we need a burst of extra strength it is then we need the amygdala and its quick thinking. It gives us that fight or flight response, it kicks in our adrenal gland and with it we have that burst of power. Adrenalin is short-lived however and that burst of power can leave us feeling drained and tired. If you go back to cave-man times and you consider cave-man waking up in the morning to see a tiger looking at him he would have needed to make that decision – fight or flight. Well, those with the working amygdala, and who fled are the ones that we have evolved into being in this day and age.
Some people’s amygdala is however overly sensitive. It triggers for the slightest stimulus and at that moment the amygdala hijacks the brain and takes over completely. When it does so it is a negative and stressful experience. Adrenalin pumps, the heart rate quickens, tunnel vision occurs, an inability to reason takes over. All this reinforces the brain’s memory and programming for the future. The brain is actually reinforced in its belief that the stimulus needs to be avoided at all costs and is permanently on the look out to avoid any further such situations. In turn we have a negative spiral of events that slowly gets worse with time making our fear of heights worse.
Hence avoidance of fear or fear-producing situations becomes a major factor in maintaining fear.
What can be done to find a cure for a fear of heights?
Knowing what we do about what is happening in the brain helps us in dealing with this phobia. For that person who is gripped by a fear of heights and who is facing this situation, what they need is the cerebral cortex to do the thinking (the big frontal lobe that is perfect for thinking and problem solving and is rational). But that is easier said than done!
The amygdala hijack is an emotional response and so it needs an emotional strategy to make any cure work ie therapy. On our course we utilise various approaches at this stage to help the cerebral cortex inhibit the reaction of the amygdala. This process essentially means that your immediate response to any future stimulus is to stop and think; rather than just blind panic.
With this stage completed we then take you outdoors. Our aim is to give your brain a series of experiences at height that are positive to help reprogramme how your brain responds to these stimuli that have caused panic in the past. We continue to apply the therapy and exercises from the morning sessions but also use a process of CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy). To that end we ease you out of your comfort zone slowly, and incrementally allow you to face new situations. And slowly those stimuli that will have made you panic in the past simply become boring allowing you to face new challenges!