Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice
Joe was afraid of heights.
He could have just avoided heights, as many people do. The trouble was he also loved them. Joe was a rock climber.
It’s surprising how many rock climbers are afraid of heights. It takes them longer than other climbers to learn new techniques or get used to new climbs, and tackle harder routes.
“It’s scary to be on the edge of stuff,” he told me five years ago. “Even a hill, or a road with a steep drop-off is a problem.”
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Fear of heights, or acrophobia, is an irrational fear of high or exposed places. For some people, a cliff is a high place. For others, it can be standing on a chair or even a single step of a staircase.
The key to getting over a fear of heights is thinking small. Small changes are at the heart of big changes. In any endeavor, whether it’s learning to play the violin or perfecting a tennis serve, you have to keep at it. If you keep practicing, little by little, you’ll inch toward mastery.
Joe got a taste for rock climbing when some friends took him to a local gym. “It seemed like a good challenge,” he said. Other acrophobic rock climbers seem to feel the same way. As one rock climbing blogger said, “I appreciate the added mental challenge that it puts me through.”
Joe really struggled at first, though. “I would get most of the way up a pitch, and I would be stuck there because I got scared,” he said. “Even if it was a competition, I would freeze.”
Does the Fear Make Sense?
The word irrational is important, because it makes sense to think twice about how far you are from the ground. Falls can be dangerous, even deadly, and it’s prudent to be cautious.
However, we’re not born with a fear of heights. Infants appear to be curious, rather than afraid, when presented with a drop-off. Fear of heights is a rational fear taken to an irrational level.
The fear itself can include feelings of panic and dread, a physical response of fast heartbeat and shortened breath, a sensation of dizziness or spinning, and a desire to get away from the situation as quickly as possible.
In extreme cases, fear increases the danger of heights because it creates either a problem with balance or a panic reaction that makes it difficult to do the things necessary to get to safety.
About five percent of people who are afraid of heights experience a panic attack when they perceive the height as too great, and need serious help getting down from wherever they have gone.
The Power of Repetition
Joe used two methods to work through his fear. The first was simple repetition. His strategy was to climb as far as he could, hang out at that height for awhile, come down, and repeat.
It didn’t matter how high he went; it might have been just a few feet off the ground. It only mattered that the height was a challenge for him. “My strategy was to just keep climbing the same pitches over and over,” he said.
Joe’s method takes commitment. “I had to push myself.” Joe admits.
The method Joe discovered is at the heart of exposure therapy. I use the same cognitive behavioral technique in my practice to help clients who have a fear of public speaking, fear of flying, fear of heights, or a variety of other fears or phobias.
The essence of exposure therapy is approaching what you fear little by little, each time challenging yourself a tiny bit more. Treatment is very successful, and in an area where medication is of little help.
Exercise for the Brain
The second method was neurofeedback. Neurofeedback, or EEG biofeedback, is like a workout at the gym, only it’s for your brain. Twice each week, I connected sensors to Joe’s scalp. These sensors measured brainwaves, and displayed the results on a computer screen.
In the EEG display, I saw one of the characteristic patterns for anxiety, an excess of high-frequency waves in several areas of the brain.
The ability to measure something is in itself helpful, because any physiological process that can be measured can be changed. Each time Joe was able to create an EEG pattern more associated with calm and confidence, he got positive feedback from the computer – a beep and a picture.
In a typical neurofeedback session, a client gets over 2,000 pieces of feedback. With that feedback, Joe was able to gain control of his mental process and thus reduce the anxiety and feel more confident.
The combination of neurofeedback and Joe’s regular practice worked well together, and he started to improve. “I noticed it was easier when I was trying to climb fast,” he explained, “because when I was thinking about speed I didn’t have to think about the height. I got to be good at fast climbing.” Joe had found a way to use a strength to move past the fear.
The support of friends helped him as well. “My friends encouraged me, and sometimes they would joke about it. That helped too. I kept at it because I really liked climbing.”
Change from the Inside
Arno Ilgner, author of “The Rock Warrior’s Way,” investigated why some climbers are so afraid of heights, why they climb anyway, and how they get through it. One thing he found was that if you want to climb well, it’s best not to focus on just getting to the top.
Rock climbing, he argues, should be a means to an end rather than the end itself. It’s not about getting to the top per se. For Ilgner the real end is being present to the joys and the stress of climbing. Rock climbing, he says, is about choosing your focus, learning to steady your attention, and learning.
Joe found something similar in his own climbing.
“Climbing a wall might not seem like much to other people,” he said, “but to me what mattered is that I kept pushing myself. I realized then that I could use the same strategy to get over other fears, like being in crowds and talking in front of groups of people. You have to keep trying, and little by little you’ll get there. You can use that strategy for anything.”
Exposing a Fear
Building confidence and overcoming fear take time, but with a systematic approach, you’re likely to succeed. The heart of this approach is here:
- Relax. Choose a technique that helps you relax, and practice it. That way you can bring yourself back to calm during each exposure. Neurofeedback can help here, and so can progressive relaxation, a peaceful image, meditation, yoga, or anything else that helps you feel calm. When you’re working with a performance-related fear, exercise also helps – work out until you tire yourself out.
Anxiety takes energy, and if you’re tired, you’ll have less energy to worry.
- Feel what you feel. As author Ambrose Redmoon wrote, “courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” When you feel anxious, your body will respond. Let that be okay. Be safe, of course, and then just let the fear, dizziness, rapid heartbeat or any other sensations just be there.
- Don’t believe everything you think. Are your thoughts rational or irrational? If the thought is rational, take care of yourself. If it’s not, then try refuting or challenging them. When Joe noticed himself thinking, “I’m going to fall,” he challenged it. After all, he was in an indoor gym. That meant he was tied in with a top rope and there were thick mats below. He was safe. In other words, is your fear rational or irrational?
- Rehearse. Imagination is powerful. Athletes and performers use imagination to improve their game and polish their act. Coaches and police cadets use mental imagery to prepare for the unexpected, with excellent results. Imagine yourself climbing perfectly, reaching the top, and celebrating. You can almost feel the high-five, right?
- Practice. It’s small actions, one after the other, that make big changes happen.
Heights are normal for Joe these days. With focused effort – and a nudge from neurofeedback – he got over his fear of heights. But he ended up doing more than climbing rock walls, because he was operating from a fundamental principle: How we do a small thing is how we do everything.
When you want to master something, whether it’s rock climbing or tennis, playing the violin or learning to coach, you have to learn to stretch yourself in ways that are challenging. It helps to love the process, to find some part of what you are doing as more important than the fear. These are the tools that give you confidence to continue to challenge yourself.
Joe, five years later, is still climbing.
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