Fear of Driving Off a Cliff is Natural?
- Category: The April Center Blog
- Written by Dr. April
The fear of driving off a cliff is more common than you think. And it’s easy to assume it’s only about a fear of heights.
While that’s one element, the fear of plummeting off a mountain in your non-flying car involves so much more.
If you have a fear of driving off a cliff, the information in this article might be eye-opening. At the very least, it should take you to new heights (Warning: more dad jokes up ahead).
Call Dr. April at The April Center for Anxiety Attack Management for treatment for fear of driving off a cliff at 310-429-1024
What is the Fear of Cliffs Called?
The fear of cliffs or the fear of precipes is called Cremnophobia (4). Though, the focus of this article is more specifically targeted to anxiety over driving off a cliff, these can be considered one in the same.
So, the answer to the question, “What is Cremnophobia the fear of?” should include driving, due to it being the more common trigger. Rather than just fear of cliffs or edges alone, that is.
For those of you with this very specific height phobia, you can probably recall many movie scenes depicting an out of control car driving off of a cliff. These scenes are always a bit jarring.
Just thinking about it now, I can rattle off a number of frightening crash landing movie moments including Raiders of The Lost Ark, every James Bond movie and so many more.
Everyone has had the thought of this potentially happening to them. Whether it’s a thought of “What if I lose control of the car and drive off the cliff?” or, “What if I impulsively, without thinking, just drove off this cliff?” or “What if this truck nudges me off this mountain road?” and on and on.
Cremnophobia can manifest in many different areas, such as when hiking, when sightseeing, when taking those awkwardly posed family photos in parks and even when taking Instagram photos in risky, high places just for more likes. Yikes!
Concern when around cliffs is natural and part of our survival instinct (more on this below). Heights can kill us if we make a wrong move!
However, an extreme fear of heights that interferes with our driving freedom becomes a phobia.
What is Acrophobia?
Acrophobia is the fear of heights. And for some, it’s a fear that’s been part of their life since childhood. Others are stricken by a sudden fear of heights based on an uncomfortable experience or observation.
Acrophobia anxiety triggers can include any uncomfortable experience of being in a higher place. Though, this does not include marijuana (sorry, couldn’t help it).
Specifically, for those with Acrophobia, anxiety can be triggered near cliffs and ledges, while on overpasses, on staircases, while looking out tall building windows, crossing bridges, on escalators, on a plane and as a fear of driving in high places.
For therapy for Acrophobia, call Dr. April at
Acrophobia and Cremnophobia Are Linked
Acrophobia and Cremnophobia are clearly intertwined. One main distinction is that someone with Acrophobia might experience anxiety symptoms in a multitude of environments, like when on elevators, on escalators, in the mountains, on a ladder, and anywhere there’s some distance off the ground.
Cremnophobia is an aspect of Acrophobia, but specifically based on anxiety regarding cliffs.
Some people define their Cremnophobia as completely different from Acrophobia in that they’re afraid of edges, not heights. These people don’t report a struggle in elevators or when on ladders. For that matter, many have even been to the top of the Empire State building and felt fine.
And yet, they’re well aware they have a fear of driving off a cliff and anxiety around ledges, in general. This is what they mean when they say they have a fear of edges not heights.
And, sometimes those with Cremnophobia simplify further by stating they have a fear of cliffs and ledges. No more, no less.
I suppose one important question would be whether all those people with a phobia of driving off a cliff fear all driving heights, such as bridges, overpasses and more. This fear of cliff driving seems to be localized in the area of driving anxiety.
Often times people with a severe fear of driving off of a cliff often fear other aspects of driving, as well. This then can be considered more of a driving phobia or, to go with the diagnosable professional term, Vehophobia or Amaxophobia.
The Difference between Acrophobia and Cremnophobia
Not to belabor the point, but the difference is specific when it comes to diagnosis. Acrophobia can be thought of as an extensive fear of heights.
Meanwhile, Cremnophobia, which again is a fear of cliffs or fear of precipices, can be thought of as a more specific phobia. Acrophobia can be more complex because it can manifest in so many different areas.
This also explains why those with a fear of driving off a cliff might not experience fear on escalators or elevators or while looking out a tall building’s window.
Many people with driving anxiety while near a cliff’s edge can become exasperated when trying to explain their struggles.
Most people assume they have a fear of heights. They often feel forced, yet again, to explain they have a fear of edges, not heights!
Though it might seem minor to some, the fear of driving off a cliff is a phobia that can be very limiting, while encouraging a high degree of anxiety.
One of the main limitations for those with cremnophobia is the reduction or even curtailing of driving to avoid this fear.
And they might avoid most areas with hills, cliffs or mountains. They might avoid bridges and overpasses. And, if acrophobia is present, that compounds the problem and leads to more avoidance.
Fear of Heights and The Survival Instinct
We all have a survival instinct. A concern about heights is built into this system. It’s how we evolved.
Anything for that matter, that could bring about our certain death if it were to occur, is built into our system on an evolutionary scale as something to fear. For example, being buried alive is a built-in human fear. The very mention is enough to trigger some people!
Same with falling off a cliff. Fear of heights was protective back in the dark ages. It still is, but not in the same frequent life or death manner it once was (Unless you’re being chased by a lion on a mountain’s edge on a regular basis after hunting for dinner).
In the modern world, if you’re terrified of heights when in a safe (enough) elevator, you know that ancient protective-based fear has now gone awry into the realm of anxiety.
Sudden Fear of Heights = Loss of Control?
A sudden fear of heights is often triggered by a fear of losing control of one’s body or mind.
And loss of control is a common foundation and fear with a phobia of driving off a cliff.
For those that struggle with panic disorder or panic attacks, this fear of losing control is very familiar to them. Mainly because their fear of panic is the equivalent of the fear that their body or mind is out of control.
And this is often intertwined with cremnophobia. For instance, when fearful of driving on a mountain road, it’s not a stretch to take one’s fear to the next level of “What if I lose control and then drive off a cliff, here, there . . . or anywhere?”
One variable involved within a driving fear of ledges, edges and cliffs is the immediacy of it.
One wrong turn at any given moment would spell the end of your life (I guess the specific spelling would be something like, “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaah”). And this thought that with a slight turn of the wheel it could all be over, can be rather jarring!
So, clearly it makes sense that Acrophobia can coincide, coexist and even be the foundation of a fear of driving off of a cliff.
If one has a fear of heights, then a present awareness of being up high in a vehicle under your control, while feeling a sense of great danger, could trigger anxiety.
Fear of driving off ledges or cliffs can strike you at any time. And remember that this phobia can also include a fear of mountain driving, fear of ledges, fear of precipices, fear of overpasses and a general fear of driving in high places anywhere at all.
The possibilities add to this fear’s complexity.
Regarding a sense of control, it’s interesting to consider the fact that driving anxiety for some is not necessarily a fear of driving, but a fear of losing control when driving.
This fear often accompanies a belief that the adrenaline surge one experiences when anxiously triggered can create a lack of control.
However, if that were true, I suppose race car drivers wouldn’t have much control or precision. They’re racing at 200 miles an hour with adrenaline surging through their system. And yet, they’re in total control.
So, the adrenaline surge you might call “panic” can’t really make you lose control. The reality is that when someone’s panicking, which means fighting their adrenaline, the sensations increase.
If people are intent on escaping those sensations, which can’t be done if you’re fighting them, they might make really poor choices to avoid them. This, counterintuitively, is a choice that increases adrenaline. Which for those who misinterpret and fear these sensations, means panic with a capital “P”!
For help for fear of heights, call Dr. April at
Origin of The Fear of Driving off a Cliff
Driving anxiety on mountain roads, cliffs, overpasses and bridges is very common.
Though, this is often considered a fear of heights while driving, the reality is that many people with this fear aren’t necessarily affected by fear of heights in daily life.
In other words, driving anxiety when in high places may have manifested primarily when driving specific height-oriented routes.
This is why many people describe this driving anxiety phobia as a:
- specific fear of driving in high places,
- fear of driving off a cliff,
- fear of ledges,
- fear of overpasses
- fear of mountain driving.
- Or, for some, just a fear of edges, not heights.
Still, fear of heights is one of the most common phobias, whether it manifests in driving or not. In fact, it’s so common that I would say, anecdotally, it ranks right behind fear of public speaking.
For those with a historically mild fear of heights, it might be surprising when a sudden Cremnophobia develops. Some may not even know the origin.
Phobias can develop fast! In fact, the simple beginning of this fear could be feelings of overwhelm in other general aspects of life (work stress, relationship conflicts, financial woes, etc.), triggering an unexpected adrenaline surge while driving on a cliff road.
Sometimes, there’s no consciously available rhyme or reason as to why you’re being triggered by a sudden fear of heights and fear of driving off a cliff. There are a myriad of potential reasons. The truth is, though of interest to most, the origin doesn’t really matter.
Overcoming your phobia of driving off a cliff is what now needs to happen if you want less limitation and more freedom.
Still, to satisfy your natural curiosity, below are some potential explanations as to how acrophobia and fear of driving off a cliff can develop:
1. ) Age-related decline and fear of heights:
Sometimes, our fears can develop with age-related decline.
As we age, a new or intensified fear of heights can be triggered by changes and nerve cell decreases in the vestibular system of the inner ear (often referred to as our organ of balance -1).
These neurological changes often impact balance and even encourage feelings of dizziness (2). Most seniors experience this, at some point.
The challenge then becomes working with these developmental stages of life while driving safely - without anxiety when driving near ledges or cliffs and in high places.
2.) Vestibular system issues and fear of cliffs:
Vestibular system disorders can encourage the development of Cremnophobia and Acrophobia.
The Vestibular System is responsible for managing our sense of balance through our inner ear fluid, canals, and sensors. If something goes awry within, problems can occur.
Vestibular disorder symptoms can include:
- an unstable posture
- feelings of dizziness
- falling or confusion
It’s probably no surprise to learn that vestibular disorders can develop in old age. This may be one reason why the elderly often drive slowly (and a reason for all of us to be more understanding with geriatric drivers!).
If someone has a vestibular malfunction, you can see why they might develop a fear of heights based on the above symptoms.
In fact, one could say that vestibular disorders and fear of driving off a cliff might go hand-in-hand.
For those with a balance disorder, vestibular rehabilitation therapy can be sought.
This form of treatment provides exercises that focus on managing dizziness and imbalance with techniques that help cope with the vestibular malfunction. These may include balance retraining and vision stability techniques. (3)
If you’re afraid of driving off a cliff, it’s easy to understand how useful these corrections could be towards trusting your safety and ability to monitor real danger when driving in high places.
3.) The Call of the Void and Fear of Heights:
Yet another interesting consideration is a concept called “the call of the void“, also known as “the high place phenomenon” (It’s so common the French have a name for it, too: “L’appel du vide”). (4)
I would venture to say that every human has experienced this, but few feel comfortable sharing it.
Simply put, this is a thought or impulse to purposely drive off a cliff, mountain road, or bridge. Or perhaps, purposely swerve into oncoming traffic. Or jump onto train tracks just before a train arrives.
These are natural thoughts everyone has at one time or another. They’re anxiety provoking for many because the thought or impulse is often accompanied by the reality that it could all be over in a single moment.
Ultimately, fear of death is at the core of many anxiety issues.
The “call of the void” can also be frightening because it can feel like an urge, which is very confusing when you don’t have a death wish! That “urge”, however, is most likely just the adrenaline surge that coincides with our body’s survival instinct and the triggering of the fight or flight mechanism.
So, take comfort in the fact that it’s not an actual urge corresponding to your desire to say your final bye-bye!
Adding insult to injury, as we get older, most of us are aware we have fewer years in front of us than behind us.
Though daunting, with Acrophobia and fear of driving off a cliff it’s important to keep in mind these thoughts of our mortality are natural (Unless, of course, you’re experiencing a depressive episode with suicidal ideation and impulse. Then it’s time to seek treatment right away).
4.) The Modeling of Cremnophobia:
Another way people can develop cremnophobia is via modeling by family members or others.
For example, during childhood if one consistently observes adults afraid of driving near a cliff or on mountain roads, it’s natural to adopt the same phobia. Essentially, children can be taught to fear certain experiences.
5.) An Anxious Experience while Driving:
Another way cremnophobia can develop is through an uncomfortable experience driving in high places. Depending on the location, this can also lead to developing a fear of overpasses or fear of precipices.
But an uncomfortable experience is not required. Sometimes it just takes a frightening movie scene to encourage one’s fear.
How many movie scenes have you seen that have involved people accidentally (or forcibly) driving off a cliff or mountain road? As mentioned earlier, I’ve seen plenty.
Depictions of cliff or bridge suicide can also trigger Cremnophobia in some people, simply based on the very thought. It’s important to be aware that anxiety is always thought-based. Without fearful thoughts, there is no anxiety!
How Do I Get Over My Fear of Driving Heights?
As with all phobias, the proven treatment for fear of driving off of a cliff is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). And true CBT for a phobia always includes exposure therapy.
Exposure entails one being gradually exposed to their fear-based stimuli until their brain adapts. More specifically, this would include strategies to help one gradually expose themselves to their fear of cliffs.
The gradual piece is important, so facing this fear is more tolerable, rather than one being absolutely terrified while driving on mountain roads, steep highways and freeways.
The key to overcoming ANY irrational fear (anxiety) has been scientifically proven to be CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) primarily using the technique of exposure.
Again, simply put, exposure is about gradually facing each level of your fear in a structured manner with the goal of your brain adapting to the fear sensitized stimulus.
Once your brain has become desensitized to a lower level of your fear, we then move on to the next level. All the way until your brain no longer reacts to your anxiety trigger as if you’re in a current life-threatening situation.
This, along with examining and modifying false beliefs you’re maintaining around driving in high places is the focal point of treatment. And how you too can overcome fear of driving off a cliff!
If you're limited by your fear of driving off a cliff, click this link driving anxiety treatment to take a look at The April Center for Anxiety Fear of Driving Program.
Or for help for Cremnophobia now, give Dr. April a call at 310-429-1024!
You can also click the link to buy his book,
“The Anxiety Getaway” on Amazon.
Time to overcome Anxiety!
1.) National library of medicine,
“how does our sense of balance work?“ ncbi.nlm.nih.gov 2010
2.) Hopkinsmedicine.org, “Vestibular Balance Disorder”.
3.) my.clevelandclinic.org, “Vestibular Rehabilitation Therapy”.
4.) livescience.com, “What is the ‘call of the void’?, 12/13/21
5.) typesofphobia.com, “how common is cremnophobia or the steep fear of cliffs?“ Pawel L.