Have you ever stood near the edge of a cliff with only a short fence separating you from the chasm below? As you held on tightly to that fence, did you feel a sudden urge to throw yourself off the cliff? Have you ever been driving and imagined what it would be like to dive straight across a bridge and into the ocean below, or maybe you were walking and caught yourself thinking what would happen if you suddenly jumped in front of a moving vehicle?
Shortly after we experience these urges, a fear begins to sink in. We’re not afraid that we’ll fall into the chasm or accidentally walk in front of a bus. We’re afraid we’ll do it willingly. And even more, we’re worried about what this says about us and our desire to live. This feeling, the sudden urge to “jump” is known as the high place phenomenon, and many of us experience it multiple times throughout our lives. But why do we have these seemingly suicidal impulses? And should we be worried about what this experience says about our state of mind?
Philosophers and psychologists have attempted to explain this phenomenon with differing interpretations. In 1943, French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre described the urge to jump in his magnum opus, Being and Nothingness. In the book, he referred to this urge as vertigo. Sartre's vertigo is described as intense anguish over our nature as free beings. To the best of our understanding, we humans have free will, at least to some extent. We have agency over our own thoughts, and have the ability to choose between multiple different possibilities that are available to us. Nothing binds us to any one possibility over the other.
In the face of this realization, we get vertigo when we realize that nothing prevents us from choosing something we fear intensely, such as throwing ourselves over a precipice.
“If nothing compels me to save my life, nothing prevents me from precipitating myself into the abyss.” - Sartre
In the current moment, you’re in control of yourself. But you’re also responsible for yourself in the next moment while existing in this one. When you are standing in front of the chasm, you desire certainty that you won’t throw yourself off in the moments to come. But because we are free to choose between all possibilities, there is no certainty over the action we’ll take next. And that is what worries us. While Sartre insists we are absolutely free, there are other theories, philosophers and scientists that would argue otherwise. I made a video about the illusion of free will that goes in-depth into this topic, so feel free to check that out if you’d like to learn more.
But if that is the case and we are not fundamentally free beings, then the urge to jump should not come from an awareness of our freedom, right? It should come from something beyond our direct control, like our unconscious mind. Which is why Freudian psychologists hypothesize that the urge to jump is simply a repressed death wish. They describe the human psyche as having both a life and death drive. Our survival instincts come from the life drive, and on the other hand, our desire for death and destruction comes from the death drive.
In Freud’s concept, the urge to jump is an impulsive instinct that stems from the unconscious desire to die, seeking to end the tension of life. And this is expressed through that impulse to throw ourselves over the edge. In this interpretation, the urge to jump is a suicidal instinct. When we are standing near the chasm, our unconscious mind is urging us to destroy ourselves. There is an imbalance between our survival and self-destructive instincts and the scales are tipping toward the latter. But then, if it is true that our urge to jump is driven by an unconscious desire toward death, then those who experience the feeling are having suicidal impulses. And if that is the case, these people may need help or intervention to prevent these impulses from becoming full-fledged thoughts that occur even when they’re not near a cliff. Before we jump to that conclusion, though, we have to ask, is this really the case? Are people who have the urge to jump more suicidal than others?
To answer this question, in 2011, a team of researchers at Florida State University conducted a study to further explain this urge, which they officially dubbed ‘high place phenomenon’. A group of 431 undergraduate college students were given a questionnaire that asked if they had experienced the high place phenomenon and whether or not they had suicidal thoughts.
The results were surprising. Although participants who had suicidal thoughts were more likely to feel an urge to jump, they weren’t the only ones. Many who did not report suffering from those thoughts also experienced the high place phenomenon. So, what does this all mean? Well, from this research, we can infer that the urge to jump is not just some death wish as suggested previously by a Freudian analysis. There must be more to the experience than the desire to end your life.
In the same study, lead clinical psychologist, Dr. Jennifer L. Hames proposed that the experience of the high place phenomenon is a misinterpretation of our survival signals. In a dangerous circumstance such as standing near the edge of a cliff, our fear circuitry sends rapid signals to take a step back. Moments later, when your slower perception system kicks in, it misattributes the safety signal as a desire to jump. This explanation would mean that the urge to throw yourself over the edge is in reality, just your perception systems misinterpreting a signal to stay safe. If this theory is accurate, then we’re still left with one big question. Why do some people experience this phenomenon while others don’t?
Why do I grip tightly to the rails of the fence near a chasm while my friend casually enjoys the view? In her study, Dr. Hames observed a strong correlation between individuals who feel the urge to jump and persons with high anxiety sensitivity. Anxiety at its most basic level is a survival instinct. Humans and animals react to perceived threats to our well-being or survival with anxiety symptoms like increased blood pressure, rapid breathing and worried thoughts. It’s a mechanism for adapting to adverse or unexpected situations. But what is anxiety sensitivity specifically?
Similar to the fear of the urge to jump, anxiety sensitivity is a fear of anxiety itself. People with increased anxiety sensitivity fear the symptoms of anxiety under the belief that they will lead to catastrophic consequences, both physically and socially. And the alarm triggered by these symptoms only makes them more anxious. High anxiety sensitivity is not something that’s talked about commonly in our society, so it might be difficult to fully grasp what it looks like. So let me paint you a picture.
Imagine you are at a job interview and you sense your pulse start to race and your breathing get heavier. You’re a little bit anxious about the questions they might ask, like anyone else would be. But then, it goes deeper than that for you. You start to fear that these physical symptoms of anxiety will ruin your job interview by signaling to the people sitting across from you that you’re unfit for the role. You worry that you’ll lose control of your cognition and won’t be able to make sense, let alone sell yourself. Now you can hear your heartbeat. You’re scared that your elevated heart rate won’t stop climbing until you’ve had a heart attack. You’re worried you might have a panic attack soon, where you feel a sudden surge of intense fear that peaks quickly. You think it will overwhelm you and leave you disoriented and shaken. Sometimes it gets so bad that you develop a fear of panic attacks, also known as panic disorder.
When you go home to sleep in your bed, you find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night feeling your heart beat faster, fearing your symptoms will entail another sleepless night. You worry about the consequences of not sleeping well, which prevents you from sleeping even further.
It’s a vicious cycle, one that leaves you scared of the symptoms so much that it only intensifies them even more. So you start avoiding triggers of your symptoms, such as applying for a better job or even just socializing with friends. It’s a nightmarish experience that 33.7% of the population go through in their lifetime. The fear of anxiety can be crippling for many. The experience of panic attacks and the distress of dealing with panic disorder are heavy burdens for anyone to carry.
Day-to-day life becomes an enormous struggle. And then there’s the fear of standing near a precipice and feeling the urge to throw yourself off. You clutch the fence or even back away with the sense that you can’t trust yourself. Now that we have a good understanding of what high anxiety sensitivity is, it’s easy to see why most people who experience this also experience the high place phenomenon. Just as they fear symptoms of anxiety, they fear and misinterpret the rapid signals sent by their fear circuitry to stand back from the edge. They misinterpret the survival instinct as something that will lead to catastrophic consequences.It’s sad to realize that a survival instinct with the purpose of enabling life can end up making our lives almost unlivable.
On a positive note, though, from our understanding of the high place phenomenon and high anxiety sensitivity, we can now hopefully realize that more often than not, our fears are not grounded in reality. Contrary to what we tell ourselves, our symptoms of anxiety won’t lead to our imminent death. Our friends won’t disown us for sweating while we try to recall some details of the story we’re trying to tell them. We won’t drive off a bridge or jump in front of a train, even if we imagine ourselves doing so. And when we stand near the edge of a chasm, we don’t have a secret urge to throw ourselves into the abyss below. We’re just reacting with fear to our survival signals, which are intended to let us live, not die.
We don’t actually have anything to fear other than how we react to these anxiety symptoms. Or as the 32nd American president, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. If we can manage to ground ourselves in reality and quiet our irrational fears, the world will open up. We won’t have to avoid getting together with friends or lay wide awake in bed at night, fearing the symptoms of our anxiety before they even show up. And for anyone who has the urge to jump, maybe one day we’ll be able to walk up to a precipice and just enjoy the view. Who knows? We might even become calm enough to loosen our grip on the fence and feel the breeze blowing between our fingers.