What the hell is so irrational about being scared of standing on the edge of someplace really high, you ask? It’s a fair question, and it’s true that a lot of phobias are grounded in a very basic, primal danger. But standing on a second-story balcony behind the safety of a sturdy railing and hyperventilating in terror is, you must admit, a bit irrational. Yet very common!
We talked to some people who are high a lot of the time (uh, not like that) to see if we could get a less frightening perspective on the issue of acrophobia.
Bill Fitzgerald, New York City skyscraper window cleaner: I’m not afraid of heights myself, but people have all types of different fears, right? I’m sure people who are afraid of heights have a good reason to be, in their own minds. Some people have a fear of flying. I don’t like spiders.
There’s an ongoing joke: It’s not the fear of falling, it’s the sudden stop that gets you. I don’t know, heights have never been an issue to me — I don’t have any fear of it whatsoever, and I enjoy being up high: The view, the crisp air, seeing the city from an entirely different view from the top as opposed to what everybody sees at eye level.
I love being up high because, doing what we do — cleaning windows — is usually done early in the morning. That makes it a very unique experience. We go on some of the biggest buildings in New York City, and in certain instances, it’s both surreal and calm.
Martin Hsia, anxiety therapist: Everybody can relate to a fear of heights on some level. It’s pretty intuitive: Being high up is more dangerous than being on the ground. But as with all anxiety disorders, it’s a distorted, exaggerated version of a survival instinct. On some level, it’s helpful and necessary, but it’s like an overreaction, like the car alarm that goes off when someone breathes on it wrong. People just happen to latch onto specific situations or circumstances. At some level it’s protective, but when it gets teeth of its own it’s very debilitating.
The response really varies. For some people, it’s very much a physiological response: Sweating, heart racing, trouble breathing, getting dizzy, feeling hot. For others, it’s emotional — they feel afraid, but don’t experience the bodily symptoms. Other people focus on the thoughts and images of what would happen. For yet others, it might be all of the above.
In treating it, we use exposure therapy, and we start slowly and increase gradually. If I took someone to the 40th floor of a high-rise, would they be okay? No. But what if we took them to a two-story office? We have a second story mezzanine here, so we take them to the second floor balcony, and they look down; maybe they find it not as bad as they thought.
By confronting it, they’ve had an experience — when we go there the next day, it won’t be as bad. Then when we go there for the third day in a row, the second floor is going to feel like the first floor because they’ve done it so many times over and over and had experiences of it repeatedly being fine — of not jumping, not falling, not panicking. So then we go to the third floor. Then the third floor is eventually tolerable. Then we go to the fourth floor. So we’re gradually upping the ante.
Sierra Blair-Coyle, professional rock climber: I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoy heights — they just happen to be what I do as a professional rock climber. I started climbing when I was eight years old, so fear wasn’t necessarily in my vocabulary yet! I think that being introduced to heights in such a friendly and fun manner made it easier for me to not have a fear of them. I’ve also never had a fear of heights in buildings. It’s definitely weird to be on higher floors in skyscrapers, but some of that comes from being from Arizona, where we have short buildings in comparison.
I 100 percent understand why people are afraid of heights, though. We all have different things we’re afraid of. A lot of times when people climb, they’re scared of falling from certain heights. I tell these people to practice falling from higher and higher on the wall, but I also caution them to go at their own pace and to not push themselves too hard. I’d give the same advice to anyone who has a fear of heights in general: Whether it’s on a ladder or inside a building, just go higher and higher slowly.
Ryan Goodnight, commercial hot air balloon pilot: What we tend to learn is people are more afraid of falling than the actual height. So they feel more secure the higher up they go.
I’ve had customers panic where they’ve had to sit down on the floor. Just yesterday morning, I had a girl throw up out of our basket. There was another balloon company with a balloon below us off to the side a little bit. I told her I’d give her an extra bottle of champagne if she could hit that balloon! She leaned over the edge and let it go, then said she felt better. In fairness, I’m not sure if that’s a fear of heights, or if she went out partying beforehand…
For anyone who’s nervous, I just tell them we do these flights twice a day. I do them all the time, and we’ve never had an incident or an accident. It’s completely safe onboard, and they’ll be completely comfortable. Once you get up there you’ll get over your fear pretty easily; it’s beautiful scenery, and most people do. They usually love it, and you’ll have a bigger regret if you don’t go.
I think for someone who actually is afraid of heights or flying, a hot air balloon is a good stepping stone: Once we get up and take off, we’re in the wind and it’s a sensationless feeling, almost like standing on a balcony. You don’t have the engine noise of an aircraft, and don’t feel a breeze.
One time I had a family whose kids were screaming in the basket. The mom is asking me to land, but I told her I can’t just land in someone’s backyard; kids screaming isn’t an actual emergency. So she put on a YouTube video to distract them. That worked pretty well: They didn’t realize they were up high anymore.