Friday, 24 May 2013

24/05/13 - Vertigo, etc

A lot of people are scared of heights. I can understand that, it’s very sensible. I’ve never been particularly troubled by heights myself, but I do have a healthy fear of falling off things that are very high up and thus plummeting to a messy and gloopy demise. If you step from the top of a building, that’s the last decisive action you’ll ever take – everything else that happens for the rest of your (short) life is entirely in the hands of physics. If you change your mind halfway down, there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it. Those brief seconds of screaming through the air, utterly unable to change your fate, must be terrifyingly helpless. So if such a circumstance can present itself due to an accident, then yes, you’re right to be afraid of being high up. A rapid descent through the air is one of those things that mankind can do little to circumvent without specialised equipment. Falling to your death because you tripped over your shoelaces while standing near the edge of a rooftop must be a real pisser.

So something I’ve never understood is why people try to ‘get over’ their fear of heights by bungee jumping or skydiving. (For one thing, I don’t think fear of heights is something you need to get over. If you’re scared of cats or pencils or cheese, those might be things that would crop up in your day-to-day life and you’d do well to think about. But being afraid of being dangerously high up isn’t something that anyone will judge you for. It’s not a weakness. Just learn to live with it.)
Trying to deal with a fear of something by tackling it in the way you’re most afraid of seems enormously foolhardy. If you were scared of sharks, would you strip off and straddle one? Would you attempt to make peace with a fear of fire by burning down your house? Of course not. If you’re scared of heights - and, by association, of falling from heights – then deliberately making yourself fall from a great height is only going to prove one thing: how well you’re able to control your sphincter in times of extreme crisis.
It proves nothing. All that skydiving will really show you is that you’d be OK if you fell whilst wearing a parachute – so the only logical conclusion to draw from the experiment is to wear a parachute at all times for the rest of your life, just in case. Ditto bungee jumping – your fear of tripping off the edge of a roof won’t be allayed by the fact that it might be OK if you're attached to a huge rubber band.
People who claim that they jumped out of a plane because they were scared of doing so probably weren’t scared enough…

‘Vertigo’ is the term often used to describe a fear of heights, although this is incorrect. Vertigo is the queasy spinning sensation that can be triggered in your brain and belly by looking over a high ledge or out of a plane window, or indeed looking at something high up from ground level. The proper term for a fear of heights is ‘acrophobia’; between 2-5% of people suffer badly with it, although most people experience acrophobia to some degree. Again, this is entirely natural. Your brain’s self-preservation module is hard-wired to distance you from peril, and finding yourself at an imperilling height is the sort of thing you should be scared of – a non-associative, instinctive fear.
Fear of falling is recognised as a separate thing, but is generally so inextricably intertwined with acrophobia as to be indistinguishable. Nobody wants to fall down, it’s an unplanned loss of control that may well end in pain and damage. Being afraid of heights and being afraid of falling are perfectly natural. Jumping out of planes or off of bridges isn’t. And if you’re afraid of heights and someone suggests that you try a parachute jump, you should slap them in the face with a copy of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. Because they are a cretin.






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