I’d never had a fear of heights until now, but as the crane took me higher, I noticed with increasing alarm the sounds from the ground far below now becoming muted; the crowd distant. Oh no! I began to breathe rapidly and sweat like a dressed up pig in a sauna whilst my thoughts raced away quicker than a missed train.
“Why are they taking me higher than everybody else?” (Or so it seemed to me.)
“Is this elastic really going to stop me plummeting to my doom?”
My first ever bungee jump was not above the sea as promised, but over a crowded concrete parking lot. Here I was about to dive head first two hundred feet down into what must surely be oblivion. I was shocked by my own sudden terror.
“On the count of three, dive!” instructed one of the guys in the crane.
But I still wanted conversation over action: “And…and you’re certain this thing [the bungee cord] will hold?”
I looked down at the crowd gathered like sensation seeking ants around a tasty carcass. Some of those distant dots had sponsored me to take this leap of fate.
I gazed at the large dizzying emptiness between me and the concrete, then decided I’d actually rather die than have to face the shame of coming back down again in the lift after having so publically chickened out. So with a melodramatic internal “Goodbye cruel world,” I let myself drop into space…
How I overcame my own fear of heights
To my surprise, I survived, bouncing back like a giant baby toy. But after this, I developed a short-lived fear of heights.
Between that jump and the next, two years later, I learned self-hypnosis and taught myself to relax whatever the height. Because I remember the feeling:
- The freezing sensation that you’re stuck and can’t move or look up or down.
- The heart thumping in your chest like a big band drum kit.
- The feeling that you’re about to lose your footing.
- The horrible anticipation that you might have to go up somewhere high.
In the years since, I’ve also helped many overcome fear of heights in private practice and as demonstrations of phobia cures on hypnosis workshops.
Here’s some of what you can do to help overcome a fear of heights.
1) One step at a time, please
There is a technique used by some psychologists called ‘flooding’. The idea is that if you confront your fear head on, in one fell swoop, then your fear system will be so overpowered that when you calm down, the fear will be gone.
Way back when, kids who feared water used to be thrown in at the deep end of a pool. I’m not saying this never works, but in my experience of clearing up the psychological mess of people who’ve survived this ‘technique’, it can often deepen the trauma if it doesn’t work (and it often doesn’t).
So I’m suggesting you only do what you’re comfortable doing – one step at a time. Practice visiting one level of a building, then eventually the next, and so on, until, bit by bit, you become accustomed to getting higher.
Set small challenges for yourself: “Okay, today I’m just going to walk across that low bridge over the stream and see how that feels…and next week I’ll have a look at going up a notch by seeing how it feels to walk halfway up that office block in town…”
2) Lower the fear as you get higher
Fear, terror, and anxiety feel like they just ‘happen to us’. We don’t describe, say, panic as something we ‘do’, but as something that ‘attacks’ us. But there are things you can do even when you are up high (or about to be) to quickly calm down and thereby take control.
- Breathe yourself back down to calm: When people are scared, they either forget to breathe (for short periods of time, obviously) or they just breathe quickly in but forget to breathe out. To lower panic, pause your breathing for 5 seconds, then take a big breath in and exhale slowly. Ensure you breathe out for slightly longer than you breathe in, as this will rapidly start to calm you right down.
- Scale the fear in numbers: Because your ‘thinking brain’ tends to be ‘swamped’ by the emotional brain when you feel fearful, you can actually diminish the fear by forcing your thinking brain to work – thus diluting the anxiety. The easiest way to do this is through scaling the level of fear.
Think: “If absolute terror is 10 and total calm is 1, where am I right now on that scale?” You might decide you’re at an 8. Now, as you start to extend your exhalations, notice how those numbers go down as you feel calmer.
3) Forget the past
Well, don’t actually forget the past, but learn to feel relaxed about old high up situations. For months after my first bungee jump, I could ‘get the fear back’ simply by remembering that time. If you also find that you can feel fearful just by recalling previous times you were anxious up high, then you’ll need to start to feel relaxed when you recall those old fearful times so as to ‘unhook’ the fearfulness from the memory. This is often the first step to overcoming fear of heights.
When you can do this, the fear very quickly becomes de-conditioned. There is a wonderful treatment called ‘The Rewind Technique’ which very rapidly and comfortably helps get you feeling totally calm about old scary memories. Which means your brain is clear to relax up high in future without those old triggers working against you any more.
Practice breathing calmly and viewing those old memories from a large distance in your mind to unhook those old associations. Or, ideally, search for someone skilled in using the Rewind Technique in your area.
4) Prepare your mind
It will help to prepare to feel calm and relaxed before you go up someplace high. So:
- Sit or lie down someplace comfortable.
- Close your eyes.
- Start to focus on breathing comfortably, with particular attention to breathing out (which mobilizes your relaxation response).
- Begin to visualize watching yourself on a TV screen looking relaxed, comfortable, and calm in a high place.
- Watch the sequence through to the end, seeing yourself totally calm, even enjoying the experience.
This will help ‘set the right program’ in your mind ahead of time so that ‘spontaneously’ feeling calm in the situation becomes much more likely. Click below for a free audio to get a taste of this relaxing exercise.
5) Get perspective
One way to get perspective on this is to regularly remember all the thousands and millions of people who used to be fearful of heights but who no longer are. You too can soon join their ranks.
And for even greater perspective, imagine seeing the Earth from a few thousand miles away and noticing that even the highest places look completely flat from that perspective.
Article written by Mark Tyrrell.