(NEW YORK) — Felix Baumgartner, the daredevil who stunned the world this weekend with a 23-mile skydiving free fall, could handle the height, just not the tight, pressurized suit.
Like millions of others, the 43-year-old Austrian suffers from claustrophobia. His feat, leaping from 102,800 feet and breaking the unofficial record set by Col. Joe Kittinger in 1960, almost never happened.
“Go figure,” said Reid Wilson, director of the Anxiety Disorders Treatment Center in Chapel Hill, N.C., and founder of self-help website Anxieties.com.
“He is basically in open space and not wrapped up that way,” Wilson said of Baumgartner’s previous jumps from the Petronas Towers and the Taipei 101 skyscraper.
Wilson said it was not at all odd for a person to fear the suit more than the height. He noted that half of all pilots are actually afraid of heights. He advised American Airlines when it created its fear-of-flying programs and noted that phobic pilots say they feel shielded in the cockpit.
An estimated 11 million Americans suffer from phobias, and the fear of closed-in spaces is one of the top five, Wilson said, citing worries about being trapped or suffocating. But that is “totally different” from acrophobia, or fear of heights, which is among the top-10 fears but not an issue for Baumgartner.
The former paratrooper said he was nearly paralyzed getting ready for his latest stunt, one that broke world records and the sound barrier.
Baumgartner overcame his phobia with the help of his sponsor, Red Bull, who called Michael Gervais, a psychologist whose specialty is extreme sports, according to The New York Times.
The gold standard for treatment of phobias is cognitive behavioral therapy. A doctor might use an introspective approach, forcing claustrophobic patients to experience the physical sensations by making them breathe through a straw or spin in the chair.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio