Facing your Fears – Heights

Eiffel tower at night.

I went to Paris a couple of weeks ago. What is the first thing that enters your mind when you think of Paris? The Eiffel Tower, right? If you go to Paris, you have to go up the Eiffel Tower!

I have been to Paris a number of times and I have even been up the Eiffel Tower a couple of times, but I have never made it to the top. I have made it to the second level twice. I have always a little ashamed of this. I went with a group of friend back in 1999, and while they went all the way to the top, I stayed on my own and played it “safe”.

So, am I scared of heights? Sometimes yes, and sometimes no!

I always jokingly say “I am not scared of heights. I am scared of falling”. This is just a smart way of saying I am not really scared of heights and making myself feel a little better.

I will happily ride a cable car that hangs hundreds of meters above a valley floor. I will happily do the same in a chair lift where there is just a metal bar between me and falling out. I don’t even think twice about this. Maybe it is because I have skied and snowboarded since I was very young and this is just the norm.

I also love roller-coasters (Or did. I have not been on one for a while). I think part of the thrill was the heights that are involved in most rides, and maybe I did not associate that part of the thrill was the height and not just the speed.

World tallest building
The view from the worlds tallest building! The Burj Khalifa.

I have been up plenty of other tall buildings. There is the Tour Montparnasse (Roof – 210m) (an enclosed office building) that is to the south east of the Eiffel Tower and provides great views on it. I have been up the 30 Rockefeller Plaza (Roof 260m) in New York. (A little tip – if you go to New York. The Rockefeller Plaza gives you the best views of the Empire State Building and of Central Park. You can’t see the Empire State Building (373m) if you are stood on it and it is a much prettier building to look at!) I have also been to the top of the Burj Khalifa (Observation Deck – 555.7m), the tallest building in the world.

Empire State Building
The Empire State from the Rock! (taken by yours truly)

In all these cases I had no issues with going up them. They are all enclosed buildings, and when I was in the lift I could not see how high I was going. I will admit that when I went out outside or onto the observation decks, I was apprehensive and slowly crept to the edge and had a look out.

How do I feel? I feel queasy, there is a little panic, my breathing gets more rapid and I do not trust my balance. I guess that most of this is a result of adrenaline that is pumping around my system – preparing my body for the ‘fight or flight’ response in a time of stress – because “I am about to fall off this thing!”

What is my problem with the Eiffel Tower? I would say that it is because the structure is open, it looks so damn thin at the top and because of its design and location (no surrounding buildings) – it looks so high.

Eiffel Tower in the queue
The imposing tower whilst i am in the queue

So, a couple of weeks ago, I had unfinished business with the Eiffel Tower. I told myself before I left that I was going to make it to the top. This is easier said than done, but I wanted to start the preparation before I set off. I thought about the likelihood of something bad happening. This is going to be pretty low. There is likely to be full height barriers at the top, so I was not going to fall off. I have never heard of someone falling off the Eiffel Tower. If the 127 year old structure was to somehow collapse on the day I was visiting, well, that is just bad luck. It has been standing forever. It was not going to fall down!

We arrived in Paris on Friday afternoon and after dropping our bags we headed straight for the Tower. After queuing on the ground and then again on the 2nd level, I was in the lift and heading up the incredibly thin structure. As soon as the lift started moving and Paris got wider and wider in my peripheral vision, the feelings started. My girlfriend and her parents started to look at me in a concerned way and I started to think oh s***, I could have just stayed on the ground, chilled on the grass and read a book. I was here now, in the middle of a crowded lift – there was not a great deal I could do about it.

The doors opened and I shuffled out. There are two levels at the top. The first has a ceiling so this was a nice surprise as I was not just stepping out into the open air. I thought to myself, well this is okay, I can just stay here, it is not too bad. After wandering around a little bit and getting a bit more comfortable. I saw the steps leading up to the open air deck and I thought why not! In for a penny, in for a pound!

Eiffel view
The view from the top!

I was the first up the steps and stayed close to the edge, it was pretty crowded, but it was not as bad as I thought. I could enjoy the spectacular views of Paris. I even managed a couple of selfies fairly close to the edge. The feelings did not quite go away and I was fairly relived to be back in the lift and heading down.

Picture at the top (Eiffel)
The proof i made it to the top.

Am I over my fears? I don’t think so, but I think being able to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower was a big step forward. It had been hanging over me and it was good to get the monkey off my back. I am never going to be that really comfortable with heights, but it is not stopping me doing anything.

Is there any fear that you have tried to overcome recently? Leave a comment and let me know.

The Science Bit

I did a bit of internet research and found out some interesting things about heights and falling –

There is such thing as fear of falling. So my jokey answer is real.  It is a natural fear and is typical of most humans and mammals. It is different from the fear of heights, although the two fears are closely related.

It is not because of any conditioning or traumatic experiences. The newer non-association theory is that a fear of heights is an evolved adaptation to a world where falls posed a significant danger. It is innate response. Toddlers and many animals, avoid large drops, even without having previously had a bad experience. Therefore I am evolutionarily successful!

The lack of balance thing is real. The human balance system uses nearby visual cues to figure out spacial orientation, movement, balance and motion. As height increases, visual cues recede and balance becomes poorer even in normal people.

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