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Rise to New Heights

Rise-to-New-Heights
By Diane Berry #102219

Question: My husband has been talking about driving through the mountains and taking hikes to summit peaks when we travel. This is terrifying to me as I struggle with a fear of heights. What can I do?
-Afraid


Answer: Dear Afraid, this fear, also known as acrophobia, affects more people than you know. I, myself, suffered from a mild form of this fear at the point we started hiking in earnest and began our effort to “summit” the highest points of as many states as we could. By starting slowly and following some of the steps below, I am now at the point that I can hike or climb almost any peak that does not require ropes or technical climbing gear. To date, we have summitted 32 state highpoints and four of Colorado’s “14ers,” peaks in excess of 14,000 feet. Colorado has 54 of these peaks, and we plan to summit as many as we are able. And I find that nothing compares to the scenery you can only get to by hiking or driving through the mountains.
Here are a few ideas you can use to make this easier on yourself, no matter whether you are on foot or in a vehicle:

1 Think Baby Steps
In working with any fear or phobia, the preferred method of treatment is systematic desensitization. A therapist would sit down with a client and make a list of progressively more frightening challenges associated with that fear, starting with the least and progressing to the challenge that feels more threatening.

On your own, you could make a list of progressively more frightening challenges associated with your fear of heights, starting with the easiest, perhaps something like climbing a stepladder and staying there until you feel comfortable. Step two could be standing on your second-story deck and looking down until you feel comfortable doing so. Your ending point might be climbing or driving up a (non-massive or threatening but still a challenge) mountain or peak. Perhaps something nearby and certainly less challenging than Denali or Mt. Hood. You may work up to those, but in this first list, your top challenge should not be that threatening.

In between your top and bottom items, fill in with progressively more threatening steps until you get to your mountain. One possibility could be driving to a beautiful overlook in your travels and attempting to enjoy the scenery until you feel comfortable. Perhaps your husband could be helpful in choosing a peak he would most like to try. But make sure you are somewhat comfortable with his choice or you will not be motivated to complete the challenges to get there.

Then just do it. As you complete each new accomplishment, pat yourself on the back and take a photo of yourself completing the challenge. We have plans for these later.

2 Learn and Practice Simple Relaxation Skills
Along with systematic desensitization, most therapists use relaxation skills. You could practice simple meditation techniques, such as focusing on a calming word (“peace” or “calm” tend to be good choices) or counting slowly from one to 10 and back again, to relax yourself. Or you could simply take 10 deep breaths to help relax yourself a bit.

Then, before you attempt each of your baby steps, relax yourself using your new skill; then complete your step. If, while you are completing the step, you start to feel anxious or afraid, stop and again use your technique until you begin to feel calmer. Then proceed again. You will be amazed at the difference these simple skills can make.

3 Consult an Experienced Friend
Find a hiking friend or one who loves to drive and camp in the mountains who can advise you as to hikes or drives that will challenge you but not terrify you. Perhaps this friend could sit down and make a list of progressively more challenging peaks, with your end point as the last on the list. It is important that this person is someone you can trust not to push you too fast for your comfort level.

4 If You Are on Foot, Don’t Forget Your Hiking Poles
Our hiking poles live permanently in the back of our Durango, so we never leave home without them. While we use them year around, we found they are especially helpful on snowy or icy hikes. When you are new to the sport and starting to put acrophobia behind you, you can’t beat them for that extra bit of stability and strength. Not to mention, if you are looking at an expansive view and get just a bit light-headed, your poles can save the day. They also spread your workout more evenly between your legs and arms; your arms get strengthened by manipulating the poles as well as giving your legs a bit of a break.

5 Talk, Talk and Talk Some More
As you make your lists and accomplish your challenges, you need to talk about this process to help you integrate this into your new reality. Talk with your partner about your fear and what you are doing about it. Share your list with them to help you choose the middle and end points.

When you are hiking or driving together, talk with your partner about what the experience is like for you. Are some points easy and quite enjoyable? Do you enjoy the scenery you can now see, given your climb to new heights? Talk through your fear as well. If a particular view seems frightening to you, it’s okay to tell them that as well so they can appreciate and support you in your experience.

Talk with friends as well, and confide in them about what you are doing. It is important to have as much support as you can muster when you are completing this challenge. Let them help pat you on the back. Who knows, you may inspire one or more to join you in your challenge and, in the process, develop new hiking partners.

6 Celebrate Your Accomplishments
This is where your photos come in. Make an achievement board. This can be as simple as a bulletin board upon which you pin photos of you enjoying new heights or as high-tech as an entry on “Pinterest,” the social networking site, filled with each of the trips you have completed. When you are feeling down or frightened, look over the board and relive some of your most exhilarating adventures.

Many of us suffer from a fear of heights. The key is to not let that stop you from seeking and enjoying new vistas. Taking these steps does not mean you will never feel anxious or afraid; it means you will enjoy many adventures you would have been deprived of had you not taken those steps. Isn’t that what living is all about? Who knows, you may be climbing Pikes Peak before you know it. As the Highpointers say, Keep Klimbing!

Diane is a therapist in private practice who works extensively with clients on stress management and relationship issues. She and her family are also avid RVers. Her articles are meant to provide information of a general nature and are not intended as specific psychological advice or to take the place of consulting with a health care professional.

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