All of us at some point have experienced a fear of heights or a fear of falling. However for some the fear is much more intense than others and needs to be taken seriously when choosing walking holidays. In this article we take a look at the causes of Vertigo and what to do if you find yourself overcome with fear.
What is Vertigo?
Vertigo or acrophobia is a heightened (no pun intended) fear of exposure or heights, often made worse when there is no means of protection. The phenomenon can affect anyone, at any moment of their life, including the young, fit as well as people used to heights. Vertigo is a cerebral reaction created when a person is put into a situation considered at risk due to the impression of height, space and/or exposure.
Why do you get vertigo?
The causes of vertigo are numerous and our understanding of the condition evolves with each new piece of research. It was at one point thought that acrophobia was often caused by bad experiences often in childhood, but this has been disproven in the majority of cases. There are now thought to be two main contributory factors. The first is that we all have an innate or in-born fear of falling. Fear of heights is an evolved adaptation to a world where falls posed a significant danger to survival, especially when trying to hunt or avoid being eaten by prey. This means that we all to a certain degree fear height, exposure and falling, but that most of us control it. The term acrophobia is reserved for those people at the extreme end of the spectrum.
Another contributing factor is retaining balance and the relative quantity of information received by our eyes. Vertigo is experienced when these two, often contradictory, pieces of information are not managed correctly by the brain, resulting in a fear that often leaves people rooted to the spot. The first information is the position of the body in relation to solid ground with the head on top and the feet firmly on the ground. This information is confirmed by the sensory preceptors in the inner ear. In short, it ensures that we remain upright but it can easily become deregulated, for example when you spin on the spot and make yourself dizzy. This information is permanently supplied to the brain and when you are walking near the edge of a cliff, it is still telling you that you are on solid ground.
The second information, supplied by the eyes, is vision and this reveals to you an empty space below you, in the majority of your field of view, characterized by an absence of landmarks. Even in normal people the lack of visual clues means that your balance becomes poorer, because in humans the information supplied by your eyes is given priority. However, in such situations, most people respond by shifting away from visual information to more reliance on clues coming from the information given by the inner ear, as well as an increased perception in the positioning and movement of their own body. This is not the case for those people who suffer from vertigo. They continue to over-rely on visual signals either because of problems with their sense of balance or an incorrect strategy. As a result these people’s visual cortex becomes overloaded with information, resulting in confusion. This means that people who are walking close to a cliff edge are literally captured by the empty space, even though they are on a path and are in no real danger.
Making matters worse
With all that the brain is trying to cope with concerning this sense of vertigo, it is no wonder that anything which adds to this amount of work is only going to make matters worse and lead to poor judgment or increased panic. For example if you are already under stress through work or a family situation, lack of sleep, illness, severe pain and the use of drugs and alcohol will all exacerbate the condition and should be taken into account before putting yourself in a potentially difficult environment, such as walking near a cliff top.
If you become frozen - how to get moving again
If you know someone is susceptible to suffer from vertigo and you are undertaking a walking holiday, then it is well worth knowing what actions to take to unblock the situation. As we have already seen, the visual information concerning the drop or space is dominating the brain and so you need to reduce this as much as possible. In order to do this keep looking ahead horizontally (which the brain is used to), rather than at your feet, two metres below you. Reduce your field of vision, like when blinkers are placed on horses. The visual clues close at hand reduce your field of view and reduce the information received by the brain. Once you can move this will help, as walking will stimulate the information relating to balance and the sense of your own body. One of the most important elements is also controlling your fear. All methods are worth trying with physical touch by a companion often providing both comfort and unblocking the brains thoughts, which are locked in fear. Finally, make sure that the person is not suffering from lack of food or water which can also alter the brain functions.
If you suffer from vertigo, no matter to what degree, it is advisable that you contact us concerning our walking holidays in mountainous or hilly regions so that we can offer you advice on the exact nature of the terrain involved and how suitable the walking holiday is likely to be.
Other relevant top-tips articles: Effects of high altitude - What to do in an emergency