5 Ways to Ease Your Fear of Falling

 

Having a fear of falling is a slippery slope. It turns out that being afraid you’re going to fall increases the risk that you will take a tumble, even when you’ve never fallen before.

Why We Fear Falling

When a person fears falling, that fear likely stems at least in part from their own estimate of their balance and gait, according to Thomas Hadjistavropoulos, the University of Regina Research Chair in Aging and Health. If you think your balance or gait is poor, you might be underestimating yourself — or you may have good reasons. For instance, Dr. Hadjistavropoulos says, some medications can cause weakening fatigue, low blood pressure may have a dizziness side effect and poor vision can make the edges of steps look blurry.

That’s why the place to start investigating a fear of falling is with your physician. “A qualified health professional can determine whether the fear is due to an accurate estimation of your risk of falling or is excessive,” Hadjistavropoulos says.

Who’s Most at Risk?

The generally accepted explanation of how fear actually leads to falling among older people goes like this: When you are afraid of falling, you tend to limit your physical activity. For a while that strategy works, but eventually, restricting activity leads to a loss of muscle strength, endurance and mobility — three things that make you vulnerable to falling.

Research shows that fear of falling is pervasive among seniors. A University of Kansas study of 926 people age 65 and older found that nearly half had some fear of falling, and 65 percent of those fearful folks had restricted their activity as a result. But 70 percent of those who feared falling had not actually had a fall in the year preceding the study.

In the study, women were more likely to express fear of falling, and the fear became more common with increasing age. Physically, those with the greatest fear were also weaker, walked more slowly and felt less in control of their lives. And people who were slower and less confident also tended to restrict their activity.

A New Mind-Body Theory

Researchers have found that being afraid you might fall directly affects your balance. When older people are in a situation that threatens balance — say, having to walk on a raised platform as part of a lab test — they adopt a “stiffening strategy.” This is a reflex-like tightening of the major muscle groups of the lower leg, and the entire perceptual system is affected, too. When people are afraid of falling, “They produce fewer eye movements to get the information they need when walking. Also, anxiety reduces their ability to remember things about their walking path,” explains Will Young, PhD., Lecturer in Rehabilitation Psychology at Brunel University, London.

Consequently, when we’re nervous about falling, our range of motion becomes smaller, our strides are shorter and our pace is slower — a combination of events that can lead to a fall.

Researchers have also found that when older people are anxious about falling and try to do two things at once, like walking and talking, their balance and gait become less stable.

5 Ways To Gain Balance and Boost Confidence

A 70-year-old endocrinologist who we’ll call Janet (she asked us not to use her real name) has done all the right things to avoid being sidelined by her fear of falling — including not letting her fear stop her from doing what she loves to do. An avid hiker, Janet says she wants to keep hiking despite the fact that she tends to trip a lot and is always the last one in the group. To avoid falling, she uses hiking poles.

Janet has a history of vertigo, a bit of a foot drop and back problems. For the past five years her imbalance has worsened. She’s met these balancing challenges head on with water aerobics, physical rehabilitation exercises and Pilates.

Whether your fear of falling is due to physical or medical issues, or you’re just anxious, there are things you can do to help yourself stay upright:

  1. Do exercises for balance and strength. You want to make your legs stronger, improve your balance and raise your confidence level.

Tai Chi is a good example of a practice that does all three.

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Yoga is strengthening and has many poses that improve balance, some of which you can do seated.

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There are also balance exercises that you can do almost anywhere — including while you’re standing in line at the grocery store.

2. If you’re taking medications, have your health care provider or pharmacist review them so you’ll know if any cause dizziness, make you sleepy or might cause you fall for any other reason.

3. Have your vision checked. (Janet says she’s always extra careful when going down steps, because her trifocal lenses can make stepping difficult.)

4. At home, put away anything you could trip over on stairs and paths that you often walk, so you won’t have to worry. You can find tips on making your home safe on the CDC website.

5. Check out your shoes. The American Podiatric Association has a 1-2-3 test that can help you evaluate whether your shoes are optimal for balance.

4 comments
  • Mary
    REPLY

    I have had an eventful year. I had a ruptured brain aneurysm and a subarachnoid hemorrhage/stroke. I had 2 surgeries, 3 weeks in ICU and a round of rehab. I came home and had to start Bipap for severe sleep apnea. Then I had an angiogram and the aneurysm is doing well. The APRN for my neurosurgeon told me to just go back to normal living . I went out and checked on my garden and was walking back to the house. I remember starting up the back stairs and my next memory was laying on the ground in pain. A trip to the ER (again) and I had fractured my wrist. When the orthopedist got a look at it he told me he was going to have to operate. Here we go again. I get on the steps and I tell my feet to move and they just won’t move. I become panicked at the thought of going up or down the steps. Since I don’t remember the fall, I have no idea what caused it. I had seizures during and after the aneuysm so I can only assume I had a seizure of some sort. I don’t even know who to turn to for help. All my doctors or their APRNs are saying go, go, go and I am saying no, no, no.

  • Jackie Hjelm
    REPLY

    My fear has been something that I’ve had all my life but, not to the point that it’s caused anxiety to the point I’m almost non-functional. I live on a hill and, when it snows, there’s no getting my car up or down my driveway. So, I’ve been parking at the bottom of the property in a small off-street parking spot and hiking up and down.

    Last Friday, I had a doctor’s appointment and was making my way down, looking for the most level spots possible. I took a way I hadn’t gone before and wound up falling, better than waist deep, into a snow drift. I did use my trekking poles to test it before I stepped and, obviously, there was some hard pack or ice…something that made it seem like it wasn’t more than a few inches deep. I had no gloves, I was soaked to the skin and it took me about 15 minutes to work my way out. I’ve never felt pain like I had in my fingers before…it was horrible! Thankfully, I only had what’s known as “frostnip”, not frostbite.

    I’ve been really careful on the ice & snow but, this has thrown me into a full on panic/anxiety attack just thinking about trying to get down there to my car. I think some of it stems from being diagnosed with cancer last June, too. I have terrible issues with sleep, waking up after only 2 hours or so, with my heart racing to the point of feeling like I can’t breathe.

    I’m only 63 and not in horrible shape, though I have been way more inactive since my surgery and radiation treatments.

  • paul buehler
    REPLY

    My wife has fallen several times over the last ten years with minor injuries. She has always had a hugeef
    huge fear of heights as well. Her fear of falling is so severe now, she cannot get out of her hospital
    bed for anything. She will not sit on the edge of the bed. If she gets into a wheelchair, it is with
    a Hoyer Lift.

    What can I do to help her reduce her fear.. It is like she changes personalities.

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