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. Here are 7 top tips on how to deal with a fear of heights …
Gripped? 7 Top Tips on how to deal with a fear of heights
The amygdala is the small part of your brain which controls emotions, the fight or flight response (fear) and impulsive behaviour. When you’re on the edge and fearing for your life it’s this acorn-sized bit of your brain that’s doing the work … but it’s your cerebral cortex (the clever, rational thinking part) that needs to be. This is how …
1. Start breathing – stop holding your breath (you will be). Take TEN deep breaths. Count them in and out.
2. Distract your brain, start forcing it to think. You really really must do this. For example try recalling your mobile phone number in reverse. This will help to engage your your rational thinking cortex, and this will begin to calm you down.
3. Visualise someone you know (or James Bond for me) who is really confident with heights – pretend you are them in this exact situation. (I hum the James Bond tune too).
4. Visualise yourself at the top or at a safe place and see how much nicer that will be for you.
5. Keep that cortex working – tell yourself your mobile phone number in reverse again.
6. Thinking head now engaged – start thinking and looking. Break this challenge down into small chunks. This might start by just letting go with one hand at a time, maybe dropping your heels or just taking a single step. Keep breathing.
7. Once out of immediate trouble, take the time then to plan each step to the next safe platform.
More on Amygdala Highjack
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!
A lifetime of programming your brain to behave in the way it does takes a journey to undo – and we will help you start that journey on our course. The vast majority of people that join us, achieve far more than they thought possible, inside the space of the course itself. But once you leave us you need to continue investing in the journey to continually demonstrate to your brain that being at height is ok and maybe can be fun!
Here are some tips …
- Promote positive expectations for yourself. Be positive in the way you regard and describe yourself. Stop telling people that you are afraid of heights. Pessimists think bad things are forever. Be an optimist, accept bad things as temporary setbacks and accept that these will occur within the wider scope of life. There will be blips on this journey when you have a bad day but you won’t always have a bad day. Stay positive and you will know that the good achievements will continue.
- Set goals for yourself. Write out a list of five things that you want to achieve (in the next year). Write a list of goals and post it where you will see it on a daily basis. This will keep it in your mind and lend it some importance. It will also help you build up a long term mental picture of you actually doing these things. It is good to visualise yourself doing these things – look on the internet at images of these and see yourself doing it. Close your eyes, walk yourself through it, see yourself doing it. Remember also, that many images on the internet are presented to make things look more extreme than they actually are – but don’t let anticipation put you off. On the day you approach your next challenge, continue to set goals by breaking the task down into smaller targets. Your first goal for example might be to turn up.
- Use positive visualisation and simulations if need be. Throughout our course we practise things before doing them for real – eg the abseils and the stepping stones before leaping the gap and so on. This all helps with the visualisation process and helps you to think rationally about what you are capable of doing. It helps you to rationalise if I can do A then I know I can do B and so on.
Every year we know hundreds of people will click on the link for our Overcome Your Fear of Heights course page. Of those, only scores actually decide to go ahead and book themselves on with us. If you become one of those, well done, you are well on your way to finally nailing this demon.
Will Legon (of Will4Adventure.com) works professionally in the outdoors leading groups walking and instructing single pitch rock climbing. Since 2006 Will and his team from Will4Adventure have been helping hundreds of people overcome their fear of heights.