I was inspired to write this post on my last mountain quest in south of Spain. I love trips to the nature, they give me a sense of freedom and restfulness after spending long hours in a seated position enclosed within 4 walls (which is not a very rare position for most of us lately…). This last trip, however, added something else in the mix of effects on me because the climb was very long (6h) and very, VERY steep, both going up and down.
For a lively image of my experience, here are some photos:
What does my face read? In those exact moments in wasn’t so much ‘freedom’ what I was experiencing, but pure FEAR.
Yep, I hate heights. For a person who loves adventure this just doesn’t compute, don’t you think? Well yeah, that is basically the state of affairs for since when I can remember. Childhood trauma? I thought about that… Apart from falling from trees (and having my friends launch me into the air with a help of a branch…) nothing significant happened. None of these events weren’t agonizing, seriously, it was just monkey me, usual stuff.
Getting back to my fear, to explain the intensity on a scale between acrophobia (extreme fear of heights) to loving heights, I’m at the point of ‘visual height intolerance’ – which is also a technical term that I have learned by reading some articles on the topic. Check out my references for sources.
So why am I even talking about this? This trip wasn’t the first time that I experienced fear in similar conditions, but it was definitely a time that I have handled it the best, despite what my face tells you. 😛 Hence, I decided to share it with a double objective: a) To understand that such a condition exists and that it is not fun to mess with a person who experiences it; b) To share some coping strategies that helped me survive.
What’s more, the a) objective is a (self)reminder not to expose people with mild fears to their triggers because it is really not fun. Take as an example insects, snakes, and similar fear-provoking examples that might seem as an innocent joke, but what actually happens is that you intensify the fear of the other person. So for example, take a look at this photo:
You see that rock on the right side? Take a closer look. Anything you see on top of it? Yes, that is my beloved woman who under any other circumstance would have made me suffer, but not this time because of a tiny detail that made all the difference.
Namely, the (additional) problem is that I am also afraid when someone else leans from a balcony or a high staircase, or when someone else climbs an (entirely subjective) dangerous place. Fear arises given that the person does that WITHOUT my permission or prior knowledge.
And then, she wanted to take a photo there. It was a cool spot, I agree, but I would never go there, let’s be clear. Anyways, I took a deep breath, grabbed my phone, and said: Go ahead, I’ll take a photo (*controlling my breathing*). The moment she climbed up there, I had 2 cues to focus on:
- My phone and the shot I was taking
- Her, but only her. Not the drop behind her.
And it did the trick! Around that time, I added an objective second to climbing to the top of the mountain and that was: contain the fear in a little tiny box, don’t let it eat your experience away. I was on a mission from that moment on.
Shortly after, I was faced with a feeling of dizziness that just gave me a taste for what was about to come. When I look up and there is something very tall like this mountain or down if there is a deep fall/drop I get a dizzy feeling. Check the photo below to see a glimpse of a situation that was enough for me to feel imbalance on-the-spot.
I didn’t quite know what was waiting for me on that climb up and path down, had I known, maybe I would’ve opted to stay down. Yes, a total pussy. Sorray 😛
So up we went, step by step, zig-zag paths and then we reached a part where a sign said: TERRENO IRREGULAR. Which translates to uneven terrain or literally – irregular terrain. I didn’t quite understand what ‘the poet’ wanted to say… Photos were not taken for obvious reasons, until we reached a place that was somewhat OK.
There was a narrow path full of rocks that left you with limited space for mistakes on both sides. Rest assured that the photo below can’t do it any justice. Or is it just me? … In any case, that was my experience. xD
As we were nearing the peak of the mountain, the scenery has changed. Instead of rocks, to our surprise, there was a plain passage, with only one problem – nothing on the left side. Vertical drop for like 500m…
Observe my hesitant steps with wobbly legs and how I am visibly inclined to the ‘secure’ part of the path. My gait is obviously impaired and that is because of a feeling of vertigo. It is like suddenly losing balance, like the ground is moving beneath my feet. Sick.
After having passed that came a positive reinforcement – we reached the top! Instant relief, a pat on the back, few photos and soon we took a different path to get back down.
Satisfaction, pride and joy lasted till about 2 hours later when we took a sharp turn and found ourselves on an *exciting* downhill path. When I looked down I noticed that the path we took to walk up now appeared to be the size of an ant. Vertical drops, here we go again. On our 6th turn going downhill, I received a gentle reminder from my leader: ‘Honey, don’t look down’. Little did she know that this strategy was my anchor from the beginning. So I just continued in the same fashion, step by step, complete focus on the present moment. I’ve not experienced such an intense presence for a long time… Full on zen, ha ha.
Fast forward, the ground was close enough for my fear to vane. And then I realized the amount of mind-work I have been doing for about 2,5 hours. To say that I was dead tired after that was an understatement.
Finally, a recap to remind you that the trip was a success for me no matter the bodily reactions because I managed to control my mind! I figured out what freaks me out and how my body reacts to it:
- Eye gaze drops to the lowest point I can see
- Heart starts beating like crazy
- Shallow breaths through the mouth
- Random breathing breaks for a few seconds
- Looking for something to hold on to
- Swaying away from the edges
- Coordination impairment
Having recognised these cues, after many behavioural experiments I put myself through, I found ways to counter my automatic reactions. I chose to break the negative anxiety loop by deliberately choosing different behaviours. For starters, I deliberately reduced my visual angle (having a cap helped too) and focused on the path ahead and every step became a journey itself. Complete focus on where I put my foot helped me to continue moving. Also, I controlled my breathing: inhales through the nose and longer exhales through the mouth which helped stabilize my heartbeat and disabled the automatic – anxious breathing patterns.
The latter 3 bodily reactions, unfortunately I could not gain control over. What’s important is that I didn’t let my thoughts reiterate fear and anxiety because I was repeating cues in my mind to stay present: breathe, step by step, etc. It is simple and it distracted me enough to keep on moving.
All in all, that was quite an adventure. When I came home, I started reading a bit more about these fearful responses and it turns out that a lot of people experience fear over heights, predominantly women. In my case, I experience mild fear and in scientific circles they even coined a term ‘visual height intolerance’ for this condition. Luckily, I don’t need therapy as I don’t entirely avoid situations that provoke fear and every now and then I ‘train myself’ by exposure and use of aforementioned strategies.
On the down side, for most of the people, this fear is a ‘partner for life’ (see the references) and it can become seriously distressing if it intensifies and causes people to miss out on gatherings, avoid situations and people which trigger fearful responses.
I have it pretty clear, I will continue doing my mountain trips and observe if my condition worsens. If needed, I’ll seek out therapy and work my way back to enjoying beautiful natural spaces that are a true blessing. 😊
Oh and of course, celebrating after each adventure. 😛
Huppert, Doreen & Grill, Eva & Brandt, Thomas. (2012). Down on heights? One in three has visual height intolerance. Journal of neurology. 260. 10.1007/s00415-012-6685-1
Kapfhammer, H. P., Fitz, W., Huppert, D., Grill, E., & Brandt, T. (2016). Visual height intolerance and acrophobia: distressing partners for life. Journal of neurology, 263(10), 1946–1953. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00415-016-8218-9