I’ve always been scared of heights.
I’ll never forget standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower, and barely being able to stand up straight. I swore I could feel the whole tower moving and my legs were jelly.
Funnily enough I also took a job climbing telecommunications towers for a living. The same thing happened. While most of the team could scale them no problem, once I got a little bit higher I couldn’t’ focus from picturing the whole tower falling over.
And don’t even get my started on bungee jumping.
Skydiving however… skydiving is different.
Despite my fear of heights, when it comes to skydiving I’m totally fine. On my first jump I was expecting to be paralyzed with a fear of heights – but it never appeared. (Though I was super nervous in other ways!)
So what gives?
In this article, I wanted to talk about having a fear of heights, and how skydiving feels to me (and others I’ve included) in terms of that fear.
If that sounds good, then let’s dive in.
A History of Heights
Humans have been on this earth for a long, long, long long long time. Yet we only mastered the ability to first fly in 1903 – which is still pretty recent!
Just over 100 years of flight definitely isn’t long enough for our brains to get fully used to it. That exact reason is (mostly) why a fear of heights doesn’t affect a skydiver.
On the other hand, humans HAVE had a ton of time to get used to normal heights.
What Normally Happens
When we’re kids, many of us aren’t scared of heights. We’ll scare our parents by climbing things, walking on walls, or just getting dangerously close to a steep drop.
Some behavioral psychologists reckon that we are trained to be scared of heights through bad childhood experiences (a particularly bad fall), and from our parents sternly telling us to keep away from large heights.
Personally, I can feel that my brain recognizes a large height as a huge potential threat. The sheer sight of it rings huge alarm bells in my fight or flight response, and being polite or having fun is instantly replaced by survival instincts.
When you’re in a plane, however, that’s different.
What Skydiving Feels Like With A Fear of Heights
If you’re 50ft, 100ft, or 300ft up on a narrow structure, your brain knows to be scared.
But if you’re 10,000ft up in the sky, your brain doesn’t know what the hell to think!
My experience of skydiving was that it didn’t feel like being up high. It felt much more surreal. Looking down out of the plane, you can’t logically feel the height you’re at.
To me – skydiving feels more like jumping into a picture, than jumping from a height.
It’s basically as if your brain can’t process what’s happening. Which is great, because it means it doesn’t know to be scared of what you’re doing.
Don’t get me wrong – there’s plenty of other reasons your brain will be surging with adrenaline and nerves. But a fear of heights probably won’t be one of them.
Another Skydiving Experience
With anything like this, your own experience will vary. That being said, I’m fairly confident that this ‘picture’ effect is a common feeling – talking to other skydivers.
I also found this great account from a first-time skydiver with an extreme fear of heights. Here’s his story:
I have been wanting to talk about this for a while now…
I have a fear of heights, but its not crippling. Standing on the edge of anything higher then 2 stories getts me anxious, insides start to flip, my palms start to sweet, and I have to step away from the edge.
ven watching movie scenes like in MI4 on top of the Dubai tower send my heart racing.
That said I go out of my way with the express intention of showing myself that I can overcome this fear. I have been on top of some of the worlds – tallest – buildings, freaking out the entire way up. (something about a single elevator shaft straight to the top….) The worst is standing on the glass floors looking down. Even did one of those Sky Coaster things, have done countless roller coasters, and drop towers. Not to mention several times in airplanes of all sizes. And every time I do one of these things my stomach turns and I find myself in the restroom before the trip to the top.
So, when the opportunity to go skydiving presented itself, I very hesitantly accepted. IT WAS THE MOST EXHILARATING THING I HAVE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE & WOULD DO IT AGAIN.
The day of, I woke up feeling sick. I couldn’t eat anything for breakfast. Went to the air field with a friend, and I went straight into the restroom. After emerging, I put on the air suit, and took it right off and went right back to the restroom (I hate my insides). After suiting up again, we walked to the plane and locked the door. The entire time I was freaking out, wouldn’t look out the window, and asked my tandem instructor a million questions about the harness & parachute. So my friend jumps first, and then it’s my turn. And it hits me, I don’t know exactly what happend, but the only thing I wanted to do was jump out the plane. I swing my feet around the ledge, and the wind is whipping. I start to worry my shoes my blow off. The instructor gives me the single and we push off. I am pretty sure time slowed down to an all time low. It was the most breath taking thing I have ever felt. You can see the curvature of the earth. The fact that I was huddling towards the ground didn’t even enter my mind. the best way to describe the view is like the most hi-deff zoom in of google earth you could ever see. I shouted in ecstasy the entire fall. I had never felt more alive. And just about then the shoot was pulled and it was over. After touching the ground, the only thing I wanted to do was take the plane back up again.
Now that the adrenaline is gone, would I do it again? Yes. Would I freak out and get sick the 2nd time around. Most definitely.
What I think it boils down to is the fact that you might fall and there is nothing there to catch you/break your fall. With the parachute, I didn’t really worry. There was a bigger chance I would die driving to the air stip then the shoot not opening. With the tall buildings, there is always a rail or window to stop you from falling. Standing on the roof of my building looking over the edge… not ever going to happen.
Kind of a ramble… sorry. Typing all this made my hands sweaty.
Credit: TheDarkLight1 on Reddit
Does Skydiving Give You Butterflies?
I wanted to quickly include this question, as it gets asked a lot and is related to height issues.
The answer here is no! You absolutely don’t get butterflies when skydiving.
This is mostly to do with momentum. We get butterflies when we rapidly accelerate – whether that’s a rollercoaster accelerating or a car going over a bump, and we suddenly became weightless before gravity catches us.
When you exit the plane to skydive, the plane is already flying at 80+mph. You’re already travelling so fast, and as you lose forward speed you gain downward speed – so it all kind of evens out.
On the other hand, if you skydive from a helicopter or hot air balloon (or bungee jump) you absolutely get the butterfly feeling! It’s super intense and can last until you’ve hit terminal velocity (~10s).
What’s The Worst Part About Skydiving?
Now that we’ve covered that fear of heights isn’t an issue, I’m also often asked what the worst part about skydiving is?
This varies for different people, but for me the scariest is definitely the plane right up there.
You’re sitting in the loud little plane – typically too loud to talk to anyone beyond shouting a few words. You’re alone with your thoughts, and looking at the little door you’re about to leave from.
Most people with half an imagination find this to be the hardest part, but make to just stick with it! Once you’re actually jumping and exiting the plane, it instantly transforms into the most breathtaking experience of your life.
A fear of heights can put a lot of limitations on our life, but thankfully it doesn’t have to apply to skydiving.
I hope this quick article has helped clear up how the fear might affect you, and why you don’t need to be super scared of it. While almost everyone I’ve spoken to shares the same feelings as the two experiences in this article, do bear in mind your own body and experience might be different.
Reading up before taking your first dive through the sky? Make sure to check out the related articles below! I’m trying to build a great resource for any beginner skydivers out there.
Thanks for reading, and happy jumping.