When I started to experience the symptoms of vestibular migraine though, heights were something I actively avoided at all costs. The swaying motion, dizziness and sense of in-balance were bad enough with my feet firmly on the ground, and being up high made it ten times worse.
A year or so ago I decided to try and face my fear of heights. I wanted to stop having to avoid certain activities with friends and family and try to make my vestibular migraine and heights work together. So I set myself some challenges! At the time I posted on my Instagram about my attempts to face my fear of heights and so many people with vestibular migraine or vestibular disorders got in touch to express that they held this fear too.
This is my little experiment as my vestibular migraine is fairly under control. If you have any doubt as to whether heights could make you feel worse, then stay with your feet firmly on the ground! Definitely not a good idea to risk an attack if you are unsure how you may react. Excuse the poor quality photos - I didn't have my camera with me so they are just slightly blurry iphone photos . . .
Attempt 1: The Sky Garden, London
Why did I choose the highest place as my first attempt?? Don't be fooled by my smiling face, I was dizzy and terrified!
The Sky Garden is on the 35th floor at 20 Fenchurch Street in the City of London. It has a few restaurants, and lots of trees and plants - in fact, it is London's highest garden. But the main reason people come here is the impressive view - you can see the River Thames snaking through London, Tower Bridge, the Shard and many more iconic buildings. Unfortunately on the day I went to the Sky Garden there was heavy cloud and high winds so they had closed the viewing platform for safety reasons. In all honesty, I was secretly thankful that I wasn't able to go out on it. Instead, for a brief moment for this photo I sat on a ledge and peeked down into the City and the teeny-tiny people looking as small as ants all dressed up in their business suits.
Symptom-wise my legs went to jelly straight away and I was quietly panicking. I was dizzy, and felt an increase in a sense of motion which had me gripping the floor with my toes so hard my calves started to hurt. I think my fellow vestibular migraine sufferers will know what I mean! It's as though we think we can keep upright by holding onto the floor with our feet isn't it . . . While problematic symptom-wise, I didn't get a full vertigo attack or prolonged dizziness once back on the street - so a kind of success!
Attempt 2: 120 Fenchurch Street, London
Going to 120 Fenchurch Street, to the open top-floor of the building on the 15th floor was a completely impromtu attempt at heights. I was in the City anyway, and had heard about this viewing platform via Instagram (where else!). It's a really pretty area, with lots of plants and seating. Many people were having their lunch, or enjoying a drink. I remember wondering how they could just be casually sitting there having a chat with friends. Did they not realise how high-up they were?!
I was lucky to be here on a really clear day with blue skies and lots of sunshine, so the views were amazing. If I stood far back from the edge (it's surrounded by a clear wall) then I was pretty much symptom-free. But as soon I crept forward to the edge, and could see down, they flared up. Legs turned to jelly, my head started to gently spin and my balance was off. Not as bad as at the Sky Garden, but an increase on my regular symptoms.
Attempt 3: Treetop walkway, Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is my happy place. It is beautiful and peaceful, and I associate it with sunny days and picnics with friends and family. It didn't let me down in my final vestibular migraine and heights experience either. When we came to the Gardens I hadn't even thought about going up to the treetop walkway, a walkway that I would estimate is about ten stories high and snakes between the trees. It was totally spur of the moment, and I wonder whether that played a part in not feeling too stressed about it.
The stunning views across the park and through the trees were certainly a great distraction from being up high - especially as the walkway is made of mesh so YOU CAN SEE BELOW YOU!!! Definitely the worst bit for me, and my stomach did flip over a couple of times when I looked down. Other than that though, I was pretty fine. I wouldn't say I was relaxed, and there was increased sense of self-motion, but it was by far my best vestibular migraine and heights experience. So happy to have conquered my little dizzy fear!
My vestibular migraine and heights tips and tricks
It may well be that you want to avoid heights at all costs if you live with vestibular migraine, and that is totally OK. We all have different symptoms, and their severity will vary amongst us. Please don't take this post as any kind of suggestion that you should try to 'go up high' if you have a vestibular disorder. The reasons I tried are simple - I was missing out on going places with friends, and there were a few times I had a medical appointment in a tall building (such as the Shard) and so had no choice.
These are the things that I feel made my 'heights experiences' a little easier:
1 Choosing a low symptom, low stress day
OK, I know this is completely obvious, but I made sure to choose a low symptom and low stress day for my 'heights experiences'. There is no way I would even have attempted it if my symptoms were being more problematic than usual. I wonder whether my experience at the Sky Garden was more difficult as I had been rather apprehensive about it since I booked it.
2 Reducing other triggers
We each have our own personal triggers and these can vary amongst us. My triggers are being on a bus (hate them!), being more tired than usual and not having drunk enough water. On each of my attempts at heights I made sure to reduce these triggers so my vestibular system wasn't already aggravated. The Heal your Headache book has lots of information on migraine triggers, and you may find it useful to have a read of this.
3 Staying fed and watered!
As I have mentioned, making sure I have had enough water is really important to me personally. Dehydration, even mild dehydration, is a known migraine trigger and all my migraine doctors have emphasised that drinking enough water is a lifestyle change that can really help. I always carry a reusable water bottle with me, either the Black and Blum bottle or the very pretty Bkr one.
Eating regularly is also super important to me. As the Migraine Trust discuss, missing meals can be a trigger and they state that insufficient food is probably one of the most important dietary triggers. So I made sure I had my breakfast or lunch on each of these days and not opted for a sugary snack instead. I know I can feel a bit 'buzzy' and off if I do that.
4 Wearing travel bands
Usually for motion sickness on a boat or plane, these work through acupressure and can help reduce nausea and vomiting. I always used to wear these during car journeys when I was more symptomatic, and if I were to dare get on a boat now (maybe my next challenge . . .) they would definitely be on my wrist!
5 Having medication with you in case of a flare in symptoms
While this tip doesn't apply to me as I don't have an abortive medication, if you feel that you do want to (or have to) go somewhere that involves being up high then it would make sense to have any medication with you that you typically take during a flare-up of symptoms.
Hope you enjoyed my little vestibular migraine and heights experiment story! Do comment below with anything that has helped you reduced your vestibular migraine symptoms. For more information on vestibular migraine and vestibular disorders, the VEDA website is a great resource.
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Please follow the advice of your doctor as to all medical treatments and activities that may impact upon your health, as set out in my disclaimer.