Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

Intrusive thoughts when you’re around high places? What it really means

Oct 3, 20236 min read minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

Have you ever walked along a bridge or near a cliff when suddenly, for no apparent reason, you had an intrusive thought: “What if I jumped?” Despite what you might think, this is not uncommon.

For some people, the feeling that they might jump, even though they definitely don’t want to, is what some researchers have dubbed the high-place phenomenon (HPP). HPP was named as such by a group of psychologists at Florida State University in 2012. They theorized that these thoughts or urges might be our brains’ way of responding to a primal instinct—such as stepping away from the edge of a cliff to keep ourselves safe. 

What might be reassuring to find out is that Jennifer Hames, one of the psychologists who named the HPP, said “an urge to jump affirms the urge to live.” In other words, jumping is probably the last thing you would do or would want to do.

That said, HPP is only one of the possible explanations for an urge to jump or thoughts around jumping from a high place. There could also be other factors at play, such as a mental health condition. Keep reading to learn more.

Is “High Places Phenomenon” the same as “intrusive thoughts”?

Not exactly. Intrusive thoughts are unwanted thoughts, images, feelings, sensations or urges that can be highly distressing. While similar to HPP in their intrusive, unwanted nature, there are key differences. Someone who is experiencing HPP (based on the theory) needs to physically be in a high place to experience the urge. There might not be any other intrusive thoughts present in HPP—just that fleeting urge to jump.

This makes HPP somewhat similar to a phobia in nature, where a phobic stimulus is always what triggers a person’s fear. In simpler terms, let’s put it this way: If you have a phobia of dogs, your fear will be strongest when there are actual dogs around. Your fear won’t feel as intense when there’s not an animal in sight. Similarly, actually being in a high place is the stimulus that brings on the HPP urge. That’s not the case for other intrusive triggers, which can spring out of nowhere, or in any physical environment, bringing waves of distress and anxiety. 

It’s important to point out that we all experience intrusive thoughts from time to time. Whether it’s about jumping off a bridge, physically harming someone, or yelling inappropriate words, everyone has unpleasant, unwanted thoughts, urges, and other experiences that pop into their mind on occasion. They are shared by everyone and are harmless on their own. That said, intrusive thoughts are also involved in serious mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is why people who have persistent or distressing intrusive thoughts may want to find an effective way to get help.

Intrusive thoughts in OCD

Though intrusive thoughts are typically not a sign of mental illness, they are one of the primary symptoms of OCD. People with this condition experience intrusive thoughts about a variety of topics, including fears about high places. 

As the name of the disorder suggests, there are two key parts to OCD: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, feelings, sensations or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted, and they tend to cause significant anxiety or distress. Someone with OCD might have obsessions related to danger, risk, or uncertainty in high places, such as:

  • “I’m going to jump off this balcony, cliff, or ledge.” 
  • What if I lose control and jump, even though I don’t want to?”
  • “What if I shoved someone off this ledge and went to prison?”
  • “Why am I having these thoughts? Am I suicidal?
  • Intrusive images related to heights, jumping, even suicide
  • Random urges to push someone else when standing in a high place

OCD doesn’t stop with obsessions, though. OCD also includes compulsions, or repetitive behaviors—mental or physical—that one feels driven to perform in response to an obsession. Compulsions related to the obsession with jumping from a high place might include: 

  • Avoiding high places
  • Not looking over the edge of a high place
  • Seeking reassurance that you’re not suicidal from family, friends, other loved ones  
  • Taking alternate or enclosed routes to avoid bridges, balconies, and other high-up places
  • Staying far away from others when you’re in high places
  • Repeatedly “checking” your thoughts for any signs that you could act on on intrusive thought
  • Repeating phrases in your head to stay safe: “Don’t jump. Don’t jump. Don’t jump.”

What to do about intrusive thoughts around high places

First things first: If your issue isn’t OCD, talking to a therapist can help. But if you think that OCD may be the cause of your distressing intrusive thoughts around high places, exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard of treatment—and it’s quite different from traditional talk therapy. 

The idea behind ERP therapy is that exposure to intrusive triggers and other obsessions (and the doubt and discomfort they bring) provides the most effective way to get better, by giving you the opportunity to stop responding with compulsions. When you continually submit to the urge to do compulsions, it only strengthens your need to engage in them again in the future. On the other hand, when you prevent yourself from engaging in your compulsions, you teach yourself a new way to respond, and will very likely experience a noticeable reduction in your anxiety when you’re around your triggers. You are teaching your brain that there’s no need to be scared, so there’s no need to do compulsions.

If the idea of facing your fears sounds scary, that’s normal. But it’s important to realize that ERP is a gradual and collaborative process between you and a therapist. You might explore various ways to expose yourself to your fears, but you won’t do anything you’re not willing to try. 

Here are some examples of exposure exercises that you could do in order to resist performing compulsions:

  • Writing a script about jumping off a balcony
  • Looking at pictures of mountains, tall buildings, or high amusement park rides
  • Watching video tours of the scariest high places 
  • Spending extended amounts of time in high places  
  • Doing a cliffside hike, eating dinner on a balcony, or going on a ferris wheel 
  • Resisting the urge to avoid triggering places, seek reassurance from others, or research about suicidal ideation/intent

A mental health professional who specializes in OCD will be able to help you learn if you may have OCD, or if it’s more likely that you’re experiencing something like HPP. If you have or think you might have harm OCD, you can schedule a free call with the NOCD Care team to find out how ERP therapy can help you. All of our therapists specialize in OCD and receive ERP-specific training.

One last note

More often than not, the urge to jump from a high place is not linked to suicidal ideation. But if in addition to the urge to jump, you feel any of the following, please reach out to an emergency resource listed below right away. 

  • The thought of jumping makes you feel happy and relieved.
  • You have a history of suicidal attempts.
  • You are very depressed, down or blue.
  • You find yourself planning how you will kill yourself or fantasizing about jumping.
  • You want to die.  

Please go to your local emergency room or call 911 if you are experiencing any of these suicidal risks.  Other resources for suicidality include: 

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