I’ve heard many Californians complain about the living cost and traffic in our state, but I’ve met very few who actually made up their minds and moved. It’s hard to move from a place where it has the ocean on one side of the road and powerful mountains on the other. If you are someone who loves hiking and being in the nature, then California got you. These days, I hike once a week and explore new places every time, but it took me a long time to get where I am today. And that’s because I used to have acrophobia, fear of heights.
Since hiking was one of the few activities that I enjoyed doing to ease the symptoms of my anxiety and depression, I decided to take small steps into getting rid of this irrational fear. Ironically, hiking helped me with depression, but it made my anxiety worse because of the fear of heights. My health insurance did not cover therapy (don’t you love healthcare in America), so I had to do some research as to how I could help myself.
But, first and foremost, why do we have phobias? Apparently, it all started with fight-or-flight and stress response. It is believed that stress response is an evolutionary trait that was developed for survival reasons. When our ancestors were out hunting and came across a hyena, they had two choices: stay and fight with a chance of losing or run really fast. This is when the sympathetic nervous system gets activated by releasing adrenaline and noradrenaline, which in return pulls the alarm plug in your body to get every organ ready for fight-or-flight (Sapolsky, 2004). Thankfully I don’t have to fight hyenas on a daily basis, but when I used to stand on top of a mountain, it felt like I was fighting one. Even though there was no real danger, I perceived heights as a danger to my life and triggered the fight-or flight alarm to go off.
Even though phobias and their mechanism can be complicated to understand, treating them is fairly simple. I learned that exposing myself to the object that causes my heart race was one of the most effective ways of getting over my fear. I would take baby steps and start with mild-moderate mountains, then once I got comfortable, I would graduate into higher mountains. Exposure therapies have helped many individuals suffering from various phobias. It is reported that 90% of aviophobes (fear of flying) were able to either significantly decrease anxiety associated with flying or completely get over their fears (Rentschler, 2008)
Phobias can vary in intensity. For some people, phobias are so debilitating, that they can affect simple daily activities. Luckily, there are options for those who are not just ready to face their fears. Virtual reality therapy is one of the options that has been effective in treating phobias. In this therapy, patients are using technology to be immersed in environments that represent certain stimuli. Author Rabea Rentschler reports on a study by psychologist Barbara Rothbaum suggesting that virtual therapy had a success rate of 70% in aviophobes (fear of flying) (Rentschler, 2008).
Now that I have conquered many mountains in California, my next goal is to work towards skydiving. It will be a long road before I get there, but anything is possible.
Rentschler, R. (2008). Nerves in flight. Scientific American Mind, 19, 74-79
Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why zebras don’t get ulcers. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin