Understanding Fear of Heights (and Falling)

You stand perfectly well on the sidewalk, but if you’re up on a box or ladder, you start to feel wobbly. Ever wonder why?   The fear of heights is a common one. Actually, fear of heights is slightly different than the true fear most people have – the fear of falling. The fear of falling is hard-wired. It’s one of the only fears you are born with (the other is the fear of loud noises).

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When you’re working with clients in exercises that challenge balance, there will be the natural fear of falling. The best way to fix that fear is to practice with progressions that make people feel more secure.   Move from positions that have four points of balance (such as long stretch on the reformer) to a more challenging (less balanced) four points like standing splits on the reformer with both hands on the footbar. From there, create three points of contact, such as with standing splits with one hand reaching forward and the other on the footbar.

How else can you create three points of contact? For exercises like lunges on the reformer, simply push the forward knee into the footbar. That extra feedback into the shin will help you feel more secure until you feel balanced enough to have just two points of support (your feet). If you have a standing platform, use it to create a more stable base for the forward foot.

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Three points of support is actually nothing novel. Look at rock climbers. They usually have three points (hand, hand, and foot; or foot, foot, and hand) attached at any time. By only letting one limb go at a time, they feel more grounded (or attached to the mountain, in this case).

But what about the fear of heights? What’s that about? And how does it affect a workout?

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Fear of heights is linked both to fear of falling and to the disorientation you feel when things don’t look the same as you’re used to seeing them.

Let’s say you’re doing Going Up Front on the chair. The Wunda chair isn’t a terribly high surface upon which to be standing, but the world does look different from up there. If you’re 5’6” tall, you’re accustomed to seeing things from either your standing, seated, or supine height. You are hardly ever higher than that. Even doing a side plank on the mat and turning your head to look up can be disorienting (or it might throw you off balance if your vestibular system needs some work).

As a teacher, don’t discount people’s fears. But encourage them to face them with smart progressions. Know that neurologically, overcoming a fear will give your client a burst of dopamine that is a happy “brain drug” that helps create neuronal pathways that will help the memory of that accomplishment stick, making it easier to do the challenging balance exercise over time.

In health,


Want to learn more about balance, fear of heights, and neuroscience? Check out Wobbly: A Balance Workshop on Pilates Anytime, come to one of our workshops, follow Pilates for MS on Facebook, or sign up for our newsletter!    

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