It’s so strange to talk about my fear of heights because it’s so hard to articulate both what I experience when the fear sets in and my ways of coping – or not – with it.
In the last eighteen months or so this phobia has been heightened by my ever increasing decision to venture to new parts of the globe and see the new places I visit from every possible angle – including above. I realise that I could allow my paranoias and fears dictate where I go and what I do, but I have made a conscious decision to immerse myself that confront my phobia. Although every time I set out on an excursion that involves heights I convince myself and whoever I’m travelling with that I’ll deal with it better this time than the last, without fail a succession of panic attacks and inevitable tears follow me wherever I climb. My decision to face my fears head on is something that is so important to me, but also that I understand isn’t possible for everyone. Although my ability to grit my teeth and power through something that terrifies me I arguably a sign of overcoming ny the fear, each time I place myself in a scenario involving heights I feel the fear to be more paralysing than the last. I wholeheartedly detest the thought of ever letting fear of mine get the better of me and prevent me from seeing something I had never seen before.
Panic strikes in the most bizarre and unexpected places, as well as the obvious. I always approach skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building in New York or the World Finance Center in Shanghai with extreme caution and on the way up I execute breathing exercises I’ve taught myself in order to control my own. Anyone who experiences anxiety attacks will know that once you begin to lose control of your breathing it’s really difficult to get it back, so for me the most important thing in any stressful situation is to remain as calm as I can. Once at the top, I know that I need to ease myself into looking outside and that regardless of how much the person I’m with wants me to rush out to see the sights, I’m entitled to say no and to ease myself into the feeling of being so high up. Weather conditions can seriously affect how comfortable I feel at the top of a building and so I choose to visit them on non windy or rainy days so that I feel as secure on my own two feet as possible. The thought of falling over the edge I something that really overwhelms me, regardless of glass panels or walls or grates in front of me. It’s okay to ask people around you to keep their distance so that you don’t get knocked and feeling is consequently exacerbated. It’s okay to grip onto your friend or parent or partner for dear life to make you feel a little more at ease. It’s also okay to take as long as you want to creep towards the edge, to jump back and repeat the process again until you feel comfortable.
The worst experiences for me, however, come when I’m blindsided by an unexpected height. When we walked part of the Great Wall of China just outside Beijing, I was horrified by how mountainous the section of wall was, how steep the stairs were and how close to tumbling down the side of the wall I was at every step. Or at the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong, where the steep climb is masked by stunning greenery until you reach the top and realise where you stand towers over the rest of the vast city. When I’m outdoors and going to be at any substantial height, the most important thing for me is to wear non constrictive clothing – particularly on my top half. Just last week we hiked an active volcano (I had to stop halfway up after a long winded build up to an anxiety attack), and I made the mistake of wearing a sports bra that, as my breathing began to labour, made me feel like my chest was caving in. Loose, comfortable and functional clothing always makes me feel a little more at ease.
All of these little stories and tips are really to share with people who share my chronic fear of heights. If I can have cocktails on a helipad (albeit with silent tears streaming down my face) then anyone can. It’s difficult to deal with this fear because it’s so irrational but I’ve picked up a few tricks to help put me more at ease and hopefully in turn they will help someone else.