Fear of falling is a universal human trait. Even other mammals have been shown to exhibit this fear.
The fear of falling makes sense from a perspective of self-preservation: Falling from a height can cause severe bodily harm. Fear of falling is psychologically intertwined with the fear of heights, which also afflicts many of us.
People can overcome those fears and learn to love high places. All it takes is therapy and precautions to insure you don’t fall — like being careful where you put your feet when you’re near the edge of a cliff.
Rock climbers seem to be born without the fear of either heights or falling.
I recall in my youth following my brother out on a pint-size vertical cliff face somewhere in Wyoming’s Shell Canyon — in our stocking feet. My elder and wiser sibling informed me that socks would give our toes better grip than tennis shoes. He was wrong. He made it all the way across the smooth granite face on the two-inch-wide ledge. He already had been my hero, but when he accomplished that feat, he instantly grew in mythic stature.
Meanwhile, halfway across, I paused because my toes were slipping out of scratchy wool socks, making me fear that I might tumble 10 feet onto the ground below, which was mostly pine needles atop dirt, but was punctuated here and there by sharp stones. I looked down, my heart leaped into my throat, and my vision began to spin. Ankles began pumping uncontrollably up and down, a quiver of both fear and muscle fatigue that made my toes slip even farther out of those stupid socks.
Fear of falling grew very strong in that moment. I became the fear. The fear became me. It was an existential moment in my young life.
I focused on the primordial granite in front of my face, forced my heart back down into my chest, wiggled my toes deeper into the socks, then completed the traverse. I was pretty proud of myself. But I never again tackled rock in stocking feet. My advice: Don’t listen to your brother; wear shoes.
A sense of balance is essential in rock climbing, as it is in everyday activity. The ability to balance is a given for the average human.
But most of us have experienced brief moments of vertigo — a feeling of spinning or dizziness — perhaps after a childhood knock on the head or as a result of adult over-imbibing. It feels weird, and makes it difficult to remain standing, much less walk in a straight line or pour a glass of water without spilling.
Our sense of balance can fail as we age.
My father is 88 years old. He began experiencing bouts of vertigo several years back. The condition can stem from a variety causes. Doctors still are struggling to help my dad control the problem. His episodes typically last hours or days.
Vertigo affects many older folks, as do other conditions that degrade ability to balance. Those conditions can lead to falls — on stairways, rough surfaces or anywhere.
The Center for Disease Control says that one in five falls by an elderly person causes a serious injury, like a broken bone or a head injury. Older adults can be affected by other conditions, such as osteoporosis, that make injuries more severe in the case of a fall.
Just the fear of falling can seriously affect an older adult’s quality of life, preventing him or her from taking walks or doing other things to remain active. The resulting decline in physical fitness can make them less resistant to injury — and more prone to balance problems.
Dr. Jessica Stallman will discuss the fear of falling on Aug. 6, at 10:30 a.m., at the Traverse City Senior Center, 801 E. Front St. Her objectives are to reduce fear of falling and increase activity levels among older adults. Fear of falling can deepen the possibility of isolation, depression and anxiety in older adults, which can lead to increased risk of falling.
The session is part of the Traverse City Senior Center’s monthly “Ready, Steady, Balance and the Brain Body Connection Series.” Future sessions will be: Neurology in Balance, Making Your Home Safe, Move it or Lose It, and Know Your Choices and Be Responsible for Your Health.
Sessions in the series are free, but advance registration for each session is required. For more information and to register, email email@example.com or call 231-922-4911.