Try This if You Have a Fear of Heights and Want to Serve

U.S. Navy SEALs exit a C-130 Hercules aircraft.
U.S. Navy SEALs exit a C-130 Hercules aircraft during a training exercise near Fort Pickett, Va. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Anthony Harding/U.S. Navy photo)

Do you have a fear of heights? Many of us do, even as we prepare for military training programs that require navigating high obstacles, jumping from planes or even climbing mountains.

This can be a daunting feeling, but fear of heights doesn’t have to prevent you from graduating from special ops training. Instead, you can use this fear as an opportunity to challenge yourself, become more resilient and face your fear head-on. Grow from this fear.

Do not feel bad. We all have fears. I did not enjoy heights during my service, whether it was on the high cargo-net obstacle at SEAL training or jumping out of planes. Both of these activities required focusing on getting it done, following procedures and not thinking about how much I was scared.

After each event, there is an exhilarating feeling that you will find enjoyable, but before that happens, the anxiety can be crippling if you let it get to you and not learn basic anxiety and stress-coping mechanisms.

The first step is to understand why you're afraid of heights. Are you scared of the sensation of being high up in the air? Or do you have a fear of falling? Can you ease this fear by avoiding looking down? That helps many people get through these challenges.

Once you have a better understanding of the root of your fear, you can start to face it and even manage to look down and enjoy the view. It is important to deal with the fear for far greater reasons than just future military service.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, “Research has shown that exposure therapy, especially virtual reality exposure therapy, is successful in treating acrophobia. People who have acrophobia and don't seek treatment are two times more likely to develop a generalized anxiety disorder or depression that's unrelated to their specific phobia.”

One of the best ways to prepare for any fear is through exposure therapy. This is where you slowly start to expose yourself to the stimulus that causes you fear; in this case, heights. Start off by visiting places that aren't too high, such as a rooftop terrace or a balcony. Once you feel comfortable with this, you can start to challenge yourself by visiting higher places.

Put things into perspective as well. At the Naval Academy, one of the events in the physical education classes is jumping from a 10-meter diving platform. This is an indoor pool and diving platform, and from the platform, you are only feet away from the very high ceiling of the building. From that perspective, everything looks higher. The same platform outdoors looks completely different, even though it is the same height.

The sports psychologist would have the Midshipmen practice visualization exercises in a classroom. Practice jumping from the lower platforms and building up to the 10-meter board. For visualization training, he would have students close their eyes, imagining they are in a safe environment, such as their bedroom, a beach or a park. Then, he would slowly introduce them to the stimulus that causes fear.

For instance, visualize yourself at the top of a building, standing on a bridge or looking out of a plane window. As you do this, focus on your breathing, heart rate and how your body feels. Learning breathing skills and focus techniques will help you naturally metabolize the stress hormones that cause you to freeze when at the top of the 10-meter platform. You can apply the same skills to jumping out of a plane or overcoming high obstacles.

It's also a good idea to talk to someone about your fear. A close friend, a family member or a mental health professional can help you work through your fear and gain more insight into it. In these situations, the sports psychologist has been hugely helpful in overcoming a wide variety of fears and anxiety related to physical performance.

Finally, it's important to remember that you don't have to overcome your fear overnight. It takes time and patience. With determination and resilience, you can slowly start to face your fear. By doing so, you'll be taking the first steps on the path to becoming an Army Special Forces soldier.

In conclusion, the first step is to recognize and accept your fear. Acknowledge that it exists and that you are scared. You don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed by it, because fear is a natural emotion and survival skill that helps keep you alive.

You will need to be willing to put in the necessary work and dedication in order to be successful in overcoming your physical and mental weaknesses. This means engaging in rigorous physical training, honing your skills, devoting yourself to the mission and facing your fears. It also means sacrificing your time and energy, so be sure you’re prepared to make that commitment before taking the leap -- pun intended.

With the right mindset and dedication, you can reach your goal and make a difference in the world. Good luck on your journey.

-- Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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