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As part of emerging disciplinary interests in well-being and emotions, geographers have recently begun to pay attention to common but often neglected psychological conditions that have the potential to impact considerably upon individuals and their daily lives. Specifically extending the scope of geographical inquiry on phobias, this paper considers acrophobia (known as being scared of heights). Through interviews with ten sufferers, the spatial character and intensity of the condition is articulated. The findings tell us that underpinning acrophobia is mathematical height: the vertical elevation from the lowest possible resting point of the body to the point at which the symptoms of acrophobia occur. This point is however - even for each individual - highly variable, context dependant and, in terms of explanatory potential, does not convey personal experiences. Instead, the idea of ‘encounter spaces’ provides far greater elaboration. Created by sufferers ‘dysfunctional’ spatial perceptions, these are the occupied spaces of mixed emotional and physical responses (such as fear and rapid breathing) and reactionary practices that are tactical yet somewhat involuntary in nature (such as gripping tighter or getting lower). Depending on the particular circumstances, sufferers might choose to, feel forced to, or might inadvertently enter encounter spaces. Their impacts also extend beyond immediate effects to sufferers’ longer term lives and well-being. This might be negatively impacted, for example, through cumulative encounters, worrying about potential encounters or missing out on life events. At this level, reactionary practices - again which are tactical yet somewhat involuntary - are often employed in order to avoid height. Ultimately, the overall impact of acrophobia on an individual depends on a number of factors including the severity of their condition, the attitudes of the people they associate with, their job, lifestyle and the environments which they have to, or would like to, frequent. Consequently, while some sufferers cope with ease, others constantly navigate the altitude of their lives.

Keywords: emotional geographies; encounter spaces; fear of height; wellbeing

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Health, Aging and Society McMaster University Hamilton Ontario Canada L8S 4M4

Publication date: December 1, 2007


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