Everybody somehow has a fear of heights. It is an instinct, and that’s what creates the adrenaline and the fun of many activities. But some of us feel more anxiety than adrenaline. The excessive sweating, the dizziness, and the heart palpitations when you stand on a chair is an experience that not everyone can understand. And it was my story until a few years ago.
Overcoming my fear of heights was not an easy challenge. But I can now control it, and it made my life a lot easier.
I am sharing my journey hoping that it could help others take a step forward to overcome a fear of heights.
My motivations for overcoming my fear of heights
More than once as a teenager, I felt ridiculous not being in control in front of friends when my fear of heights kicked in without warning. I remember trying to explain… Yes, I could go up these stairs, but now that I have to go down, they don’t look safe, my legs are shaking, I feel nauseous, and I have to sit down. And we were just in a shopping mall. So I naturally managed to avoid many situations where it may happen – including not driving in the mountains for example. There were times in my life when my fear of heights was a problem.
I had all the freedom I could wish for, but something in my head was putting up barriers.
How sad is that?! To be honest, I had accepted it, and I was happy to avoid facing my fear. I had removed all height-related adventures from my adrenaline bucket list. Until the day I realised I could find the strength to overcome it.
I was solo-travelling in Langkawi, a beautiful island in Malaysia. The Cable Car and the Sky Bridge are among the top things to do in Langkawi. I had never been scared of heights from a bridge before, so I went in without even thinking about it. The views were fantastic. But suddenly, I felt the bridge moving with the wind. And it started. I realised I was suspended between two mountains, 100 metres above the ground. I was by myself, scared of heights, tetanised, on “the longest free span and curved bridge in the world.”
Feeling sick and helpless, I curled up to seek comfort. But on another hand, it made no sense to stay there. So I had to move. I wanted to. And it happened. After a while, I managed to get up and went back by myself to the start of the bridge without further drama.
It was the first time I won the mind fight against my phobia. And I made sure more times followed.
I learnt about my fear of heights
My first tip to overcome your fear of heights is to understand it better.
My experience in Langkawi made me learn a lot about my fear of heights. The most important thing was, of course, that I could fight it. It switched my mindset about my phobia. So I took time to try to understand why it happens. This was key to work on it later on in other situations.
I was lucky to achieve this by myself, but you may want to seek help from friends or healthcare professionals to help you deal with your fear of heights.
It felt uncomfortable to look back at this experience, but these simple answers were the start of my new journey.
Understanding what happens when the fear kicks in
What was I actually scared of? Falling. What could cause me to fall? If I lose balance or if the infrastructure is not strong enough. Why did I stop walking? I panicked and froze. What caused me to freeze? I felt dizzy, weak and couldn’t breathe.
Recognising the symptoms
My way of overcoming my fear of heights was not about eliminating the fear. I don’t know if that’s even possible. It was about getting it under control. So looking at the symptoms in addition to the cause was important.
Then, I quickly realised the symptoms were some sort of anxiety. So I looked for information about how to reduce anxiety. And I found something that really helped me. When the fear of heights kicked in, I’d close my eyes to focus on my breathing: slow, deep and gentle breath through the nose (in) and the mouth (out).
Overcoming a fear of heights step by step
I didn’t overcome my fear of heights overnight. I gradually placed myself in situations that I knew would trigger a fear of heights, with the aim to stay in control.
From the balcony…
I’d take a big breathe and get one step closer to the edge of a balcony or a platform when the opportunity arose. It started to become easier quicker than I expected. I noticed that trust was a huge deal for me to feel more comfortable and stay in control. If I trusted the infrastructure, I could tell myself that it was safe and that my mind was the only problem.
My first win was to start being able to control my fear in an environment I knew well and where it was easy to rationalise that I was not going to fall. So I took this to the next step with more adventurous tests.
One of the hardest ones was abseiling in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney. It was a gift from former colleagues, so the pressure not to disappoint made me accept to do it. And from the moment I said yes, I regretted it. It made me sick to think about it. But the trip went ahead.
To feel better, I did research about abseiling safety and about the tour operator.
I would look for everything that could help me rationalise my fear when the first symptoms would start to kick in.
We started with a “small” cliff. The hardest part was the start. The first steps along the cliff as you put your body in the most unnatural position felt wrong. I was terrified but managed to convince myself I would not risk too much if I fell. I was attached and secured by professionals. And we were only a few metres above ground, so a fall wouldn’t have been that bad. It was mentally exhausting, but I did it.
The next cliff was supposed to be 15 metres. I breathed and replicated the same thing I just did without thinking, like if I were in an automatic mode. I wasn’t looking down and I was trying not to think too much about it. The breathing technique was helping again. And it worked for a while.
But suddenly, I was hanging on the rope with no cliff in front of me. I looked around and realised I was 100 metres above the ground.
I misunderstood the activity: we were actually abseiling a massive cliff for only 15 metres. There was a big crack in the cliff where we would stop. It meant there was no rock to abseil on for a few metres, leaving me hanging there. The guide was shouting instructions: “Let go of everything! I will take you down”. But I couldn’t let go and release the rope. I was too scared. I stayed stuck there for a little while until my arm became too sore as I was holding the line too strongly because of the anxiety. I was laughing and crying and yelling all at the same time. Big drama. I hated this failure feeling.
They gave me a chance to do it again straight away and convinced me it would be more comfortable the second time. I knew what to expect, and it was easier indeed. I even almost enjoy the beautiful landscape the second time. It ended up being a win!
…To bungee jumping…
Bungee jumping was the biggest step I ever took. I had thought about it for a while. As a kid, I found it exciting. Then I grew up, and it looked terrifying.
I had heard for years about the super high bungee jumping opportunity in a canyon near Queenstown, in New Zealand. So when I travelled there, I decided to try it.
It was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, physically and mentally. Actually, the only pleasure came from the satisfaction of knowing that I could do it.
I won the biggest fight ever against my mind that day.
…To outdoor climbing…
That was my ultimate goal. I wanted to be able to reach places while hiking without being terrified. Rock climbing is safer when you have skills and strength. So I started practising indoors before going outside. I started with secured ropes before climbing without. Each time, I was impressed by the height but always managed to finish the tracks I started.
The first time I had to climb outdoor was a small wall when we hiked Duke’s Nose in New Zealand’s North Island. I was the one who wanted to go there and totally underestimated the hike. It made me feel that I had to continue and reach the top. And it was a lot easier than I expected – as long as I didn’t look down. I was with someone with skills that I trusted, and this was of incredible help too.
The next time was during the Mount Barney hike, the most challenging mount near Brisbane in Australia. I didn’t look down and felt confident: no problem at all. Trusting my fitness and my ability are key. Since, I like to practice when the opportunity arises to improve my skills. We’re lucky to have outdoor climbing right in front of the city in Brisbane!
I’ve even now managed more challenging outdoor climbs without any rope during impressive hikes in New Caledonia. The adrenaline was surely there but the fear of heights never kicked in. I stayed in control and enjoyed the performance.
I can now proudly say I can fight my fear of heights
It took time, and it took even more effort. It’s never easy to step out of your comfort zone. But it’s almost always rewarding. It led me to see stunning views that I would have missed a few years ago.
I now feel that if I am secure, I could try anything. It’s still a battle, but I always win it. When I am not secured with a rope, it’s a different story. I want to analyse the situation carefully with someone I trust before stepping in.
But is it being scared of heights or just being smart?
Are you trying to overcome a fear of heights? Share your experience in the comments below!
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