"High Place Phenomenon": Turns Out I'm NOT Suicidal After All

You know that weird urge you sometimes get to leap off a bridge? No? Well I do. All. The. Time.

Jul 6, 2012 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

On the fourth, I knew the fireworks would be a problem. We were going to watch from our roof, which clocks in at about 50 feet above concrete level. A coveted amenity in the condo living world, having a finished rooftop is like having one of those fancy toilets from Japan, all everyone wants to do is sit on it and relax. Except for me.

Much like genius Japanese water closets that think for your butt, roofs really freak me out. Actually high places in general--mountains, bridges, canyons, precipes, a stoop--all present their own challenges to the synapses going off in my brain. But I'm not afraid of falling off.

I'm afraid of jumping.

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Clearly jumping off a roof gets a thumbs down.

This strange--almost physical--pull to leap from anything taller than a front step started when I was in my late 20s. At the time I worked as a political reporter in Virginia across the river from Washington and would regularly escape "the cubicles" (a disorder that involves allergic reactions to work) by taking a leisurely stroll over a nearby bridge for lunch. 

One day, while whiling away a deadline watching kayakers, I had a weird new thought, Why not just go for it? Jump! My throat caught and my stomach dropped as I immediately backed away from the railed edges of the bridge, shaking my head in disbelief. The moment passed almost as quickly as it'd come but I'd scared myself into a sprint back to solid land. 

Mind you I had no intention of killing myself. I wasn't particularly depressed, overly anxious or heavily burdened with life. The idea to take flight wasn't rooted in anything besides the allure of the limitless freedom of the sky. Almost unbeknownst to me my body had become bored with this whole gravity thing. And the feeling, the longing, the itching hasn't gone away since. I see an edge and immediately feel like I could take it on. It's thrilling. Like the downward dip of a rollercoaster. And also really really weird.

So now whenever I'm high up I mentally brace myself, literally locking my mind on my feet so as not to give in to whatever lemming-like urge I've got for inertia. Needless to say I've thought this reaction was a bit off, until, of course, I discovered there were more out there like me. 

According to a new study on "high place phenomenon" published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. Researchers from Florida State University’s psychology department surveyed 431 college students, gauging their urges to jump from high places and whether those were tied to thoughts of suicide or depression.

In most cases the urge to jump had nothing to do with the Freudian "death wish." Actually it's quite the opposite. The study's authors think "an urge to jump affirms the urge to live." 

The experience of a sudden urge to jump when in a high place has been speculated to be associated with suicidal ideation; however, scant data has informed this speculation. We termed this experience the high place phenomenon(HPP) and proposed that it stems from a misinterpreted safety signal (i.e., survival instinct). 

That shit cray.

So basically if you're someone with "high anxiety sensitivity," that means you're more affected by the slightest threat, and your body goes into flight mode when presented with the slimmest chance of danger--like falling off of a secured bridge or slipping from a roof when your 10 feet from the edge. The urge to jump then might not be an urge at all, it's delayed reasoning for why you were so scared of being close to the edge in the first place. 

That's sort of not as cool as me being a down low dare devil, but I'll take it.