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Are you fearless? Good for you! I, unfortunately, am not put together that way.

You would think that by now I would have outgrown my fears, most of which date all the way back to my childhood (if not the womb). And yes, I have mastered a few of them, including my fears of wasps, cockroaches, dead mice, and mortifying public humiliation. Sometimes the rational mind prevails.

But let’s be honest. My most crippling fear is totally irrational, and to think that logic and reason can tame it is to seriously underestimate the power of the irrational in the human mind.

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My biggest phobia (a pretentious-sounding Greek word that lacks the savage pithiness of Old Saxon/Old Norse words like “fear”) is of heights. Here is how it plays out: On a family vacation in 1961, my father led me and my sister to the observation deck of a 34-story office building to see the splendid view. It sounded like fun. But once I stepped through the glass door onto the open deck and peered over the edge, I was seized by a wave of dizziness and panic. I did not dare to peer over the edge because I “knew” that if I did, my glasses would fall 34 stories and I, being firmly attached to my glasses, would fall with them. Terrified, I backed away from the edge until I could feel a solid wall behind me, and I stayed glued to that wall while my father and sister took in the panorama. The dizziness dissipated only when I was safely inside the enclosed structure.

I have the same experience in any situation in which I can imagine myself falling. The actual distance of the potential fall is irrelevant. The dizziness overwhelms me at 4,000-foot scenic overlooks, but also on pedestrian bridges scarcely 30 feet above the ground.

The fear is not triggered when I am in enclosed space. In other words, I have no problem flying in a commercial airplane and looking out the window. I can drive a car over long, high bridges with little difficulty, aside from white knuckles. On the other hand, I’ll never fly in a helicopter with one or more sides open to the wind. Elevators are fine; Ferris wheels are pure terror. Rather than becoming less severe over time, the fear has actually gotten more intense in some ways. At present, I can’t watch a video screen when characters leap from an airplane, soar in a hang glider, or perch on the ledge of a skyscraper without feeling queasy and closing my eyes.

As phobias go, my fear of heights is not so bad. Aside from making me unfit for certain amusement park rides and difficult company on adventurous hikes, it doesn’t restrict my life or my enjoyment of it. Other fears can be far more limiting. A person who fears dogs would not have an easy time walking through my neighborhood. Fear of the dark can play havoc on a good night’s sleep. Fear of closed spaces (claustrophobia) can make riding elevators a hellish experience. Fear of needles may impede healthcare.

Treatments

Are we doomed to be haunted by these fears for the remainder of our lives?

Not necessarily. If your fears are boxing you in and keeping you from fully enjoying life, there are several therapies with good results. The most common treatment is exposure therapy, in which a therapist, in a safe environment, exposes you gradually and repeatedly to the very thing you fear, so that over time it becomes familiar and the fear dissipates. Some therapists combine exposure with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which works to help you challenge and reframe the beliefs that trigger fear. Another treatment regimen is called flooding – instead of introducing the feared object or situation gradually, you are “flooded” with a large volume of triggers for a long time.

In all these treatments – and don’t try this at home without the aid of a trained mental health professional – the objective is to get past the anxiety and panic by forcing you to confront the fear and strip it of its power over you.

I have not sought therapy for my fear of heights. (I have, however, sought therapy for other problems and recommend it.) But if one or more fears is boxing you in and limiting your choices, just know that you don’t have to live under these curses forever.

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Don Akchin Publisher/Podcaster at The EndGame

Don Akchin is a recovering journalist who publishes a weekly newsletter and biweekly podcast called The EndGame, which encourages "chronologically gifted" baby boomers to live their later years with joy and purpose. In his former life he wrote for magazines, newspapers, colleges and universities, and nonprofit organizations.

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