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Why my friends are rock climbers, and I am not… October 16, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in Uncategorized.
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This weekend, I went on a hike that involved something terrifying:

I had to cross a bridge on foot.

For most people, this isn’t a big deal. However, I am uncharacteristically acrophobic. As it turns out, I’m also arachnophobic.

However, the two phobias are not both phobias in the strictest sense. A phobia is a fear of something, and I am most definitely afraid of spiders. I did not used to be afraid of falling until I started having very unpleasant symptoms when I got around high places.

Acrophobia is actually caused in a neurological malfunction in the brain. When people encounter a bridge, such as the one above, they can rely on their sense of balance and knowledge of their body to help them cross it safely.

Not so with an acrophobe: an acrophobe will fail to do this for some reason and will continue to rely on their visual perception too strongly. It’s unclear what causes this, and it may be different for every individual. The result, however, is that an acrophobe will see the heights and will misinterpret or even ignore signals from the proprioceptive and vestibular systems and believe that they are falling when they are not. (I’ve also heard the theory that the body will attribute the sensation to poisoning, so it tries to make the acrophobe throw up, hence the nausea.)

While desensitization techniques will work on arachnophobia or other similar fears, forcing the acrophobe to ‘face their fear’ actually can cause greater disorientation, reinforcing the fear.

I have slowly learned that, because this is a problem with the balance between vestibular and ocular inputs, one can do things to help with the problem. Not looking down, as cliche as it sounds, is pretty important. Bridges such as this, where one can see the ground below them, are more problematic than those with solid sides. However, I tend to look at my feet when walking (probably because of the same problem), so it helps to have someone or something to hold onto so that I don’t trip and end up looking down inadvertently.

Apparently, some people have started therapy programs that can help deal with the problem, but they are rather difficult to find. I’m still looking for one, obviously.

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Comments»

1. NJS - October 16, 2010

Would it work if you can get to the railing, close your eyes, and feel your way across along the rail?

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2. mareserinitatis - October 17, 2010

Actually, closing my eyes isn’t much better because doing so causes motion sickness. If I can feel myself moving but can’t see it, I get sick, too. I can’t read in the car because of it. Sucks on long trips.

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3. Chris Gammell - October 18, 2010

What about sprinting and screaming simultaneously? Is that a recognized therapy? Because that’s about all I can come up with.

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mareserinitatis - October 18, 2010

*snicker* Unfortunately, I would probably end up convulsing and laying helpless on the bridge halfway across because of the dizziness. Sounds good on the surface, though…

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4. -Paul - October 19, 2010

It looks like the surface of the bridge is actually solid, not a metal mesh like catwalks tend to be nor boards w/ gaps between them. With something like that, could you focus your vision on the solid surface immediately under your feet — *do* look down but hyper-focused on the surface while ignoring the peripheral vision?

(I think that’s about the most solid hiking bridge I’ve ever seen! :-D)

Hugs.

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mareserinitatis - October 21, 2010

Hi, Paul.

If the sides are also solid (no gaps), I seem to do just fine, but peripheral vision seems to be just as important.

The bridge was very solid. It didn’t wobble whatsoever.

Drop me an email when you have some time.

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