Everyday science: Fear of heights

| Jelle Posthuma

Do you ever take the time in your busy life to wonder about everyday phenomena? Things that are obvious to us or perhaps just make for a handy trick? There is always a scientific explanation for such phenomena. In Everyday Science, a UT researcher sheds light on an everyday topic.

Everyone seems to suffer from it to some extent: a fear of heights. For some people, however, this fear becomes unbearable. Even a kitchen ladder will leave them with shaking legs, a pounding heart and sweaty palms. Where does our fear of heights come from? What can we do about it? Jean-Louis van Gelder, Professor of Innovative Methods in Public Safety Research, developed an app that allows people to overcome their fear of heights in virtual reality.

'Fear is very important to people'

‘Fear is very important to people,’ Van Gelder explains. ‘It warns us of danger and serves an evolutionary purpose: it prepares the body for dangerous situations. When such a fear reaches clinical levels and requires treatment, it is called a phobia. The phobia starts to affect the patient in their daily life. On top of that, this fear is irrational and no longer has an objective foundation. Some people have a fear of flying and prefer to drive instead, even though driving is statistically more dangerous than flying.’

‘A fear of heights is a specific phobia, an extremely intense form of fear of a situation or an object. Specific phobias are often born out of negative experiences or by adopting the fears of those around you: it is contagious in a sense. It does not usually start as an extreme fear; instead, the intensity gradually increases over time. Someone is on a skiing holiday and starts to feel dizzy in the ski lift. That can be the beginning of a phobia. This person will start to avoid ski lifts from then on. This avoidance leads to an intensification of the fear and results in the development of an incorrect association: avoidance creates a feeling of safety, while in reality it actually feeds the fear.’

‘Luckily, a fear of heights is excellently treatable. The core of the treatment is exposure. Think of it as reverse engineering the fear. The fear is fed through avoidance, so it is crucial to confront your fear instead. The trick is to gradually expose people to heights. They must stay in a situation long enough for the fear to begin to subside. The body cannot maintain the tension of the flight response indefinitely. The brain learns that exposure to heights has no negative consequences.’

'The core of the treatment is exposure'

‘The ZeroPhobia app utilises VR (virtual reality) to practise these situations. It is often difficult and time-consuming to visit tall buildings in real life for the treatment. VR is more practical because you do not even have to leave your house. People know full well that they are in a VR environment, yet they still experience a fear of heights. We recently tested our app on a group of 193 people. The results after the digital treatment: a 60% reduction of the fear symptoms.’


This article was also published in the latest U-Today Science & Technology Magazine.