Is your child afraid of heights? Being afraid of heights is a relatively common fear. But does your child resist having his or her head tilted backward during hair washing, become fearful on stairs or escalators, or avoid having his or her feet off the ground? These behaviors can be signs of something more significant than your average fear of heights: gravitational insecurity.

What is gravitational insecurity?

Gravitational insecurity is an emotional reaction to non-threatening movement. The vestibular system is the sensory system responsible for interpreting movement, and individuals who have an over-responsive vestibular system can misinterpret non-threatening movement as threatening, triggering a physiological “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system response. Non-threatening movement experiences that can trigger a fight or flight response in individuals with gravitational insecurity include changing of head position, movement onto a raised or unstable surface, or movement through back space.

Signs of gravitational insecurity

If your child exhibits any of the following behaviors, he or she may be experiencing gravitational insecurity:

  • Fear of heights
  • Fear of falling when no real danger exists
  • Difficulty or resistance to walking on stairs (may include difficulty alternating feet on stairs or inability to let go of railing)
  • Fear of escalators or elevators
  • Resistance to being upside-down
  • Avoidance of high playground equipment
  • Resistance to head position changes (ex: tilting head back to wash hair)
  • Avoidance of having feet off ground
  • Resistance to jumping off of or stepping down from a raised surface (ex: stepping out of car or off of curb)
  • Resistance to bike riding or scooter riding
  • General slow, careful movements and avoidance of age-appropriate risk-taking
  • Signs of distress when lying on back (ex: during diaper change)
  • Avoidance of crawling or walking on uneven surfaces
  • Resistance to being picked up

What should I do if my child shows signs of gravitational insecurity?

Gravitational insecurity can impact a child’s functional participation in everyday contexts such as school, home, and community settings. It’s important to address vestibular processing challenges underlying gravitational insecurity to help prevent children from being chronically triggered into a state of fight or flight, as a prolonged elevation of cortisol levels associated with this sympathetic nervous system response isn’t healthy for the brain. Children with gravitational therapy can benefit from working with an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration to improve their vestibular processing and help them feel more secure during movement across a variety of environments.