The fear of falling is one of the most basic anxieties anyone can experience.
For some people, if they walk on a trail by the edge of a cliff, they cannot look down from a height without feeling a little dizzy. Sometimes people even freeze in their movement because the fear of another step near the edge will lead to a fall. This fear can even follow us while we sleep, as you know if you’ve ever dreamt of flying and woken up with a start at the moment of sudden descent or landing.
This fear of falling can carry over into our day-to-day lives, when we walk on uneven pavement, or even think about having to walk in the dark.
Most people try to prevent themselves from falling by stiffening their hips and the muscles of their back in such a way as to pull themselves away from the ground. But let me suggest another way to approach the movement.
Instead of crashing to the ground, imagine that in the moment of descent, you knew that you could trust your body to land safely and softly—without bruises or broken bones.
If you feel like you are going to fall, the safest thing is to learn how to do so. If you stiffen the muscles of your back and hips, you are more likely to hit the ground harder.
It would be helpful to anyone who feels afraid of falling to practice getting down to the floor and up again as a mind-body exercise. One of the best strategies would be to learn over time to move to the ground as quickly as possible so you have control of your landing.
By practicing going down to the ground, you will eventually be able to move faster.
In learning how to fall, you’ll learn to move as fast as gravity.
The first step to master these physical concepts is a simple thought experiment that asks you to imagine (rather than perform) movement.
Without actually moving, imagine going down and up from the floor. The next time you imagine going down, go all the way down to lying on your back. Not only will this imagined movement melt your old habits, but it will also enable you to create new movements by expanding your embodied imagination and adding new neurons to your brain.
Next bring your imagination to the physical movement: move from standing to the floor and back to standing as you saw yourself doing it in your mind. You might even find that it’s good exercise to go down to the floor and onto your back, then return to standing—something you could practice every day. Feel free to invent your own variations, as long as how you do them is clear to you.
Try going at various speeds so that you can go up and down from the floor without bumping. Feel how smooth the movement can be and how light you can make your return to standing.
Imagine if photographs were taken of you getting down to the floor and returning or coming up from the floor to standing and then returning to the floor. If your movement was controlled, a viewer would not be able to distinguish from any given direction you are going because your movement, if controlled, would be completely reversible.
Once you’ve mastered each step, you can then speed it up as quickly as you want. Then, starting on the floor and getting up, you’ll learn to reverse the trajectory perfectly when going back down to the floor. This principle of reversibility in movement will help you control your body if you go at high speed.
This up and down movement is very stimulating to the inner ear, and sometimes we need to take time to adjust to that. When you increase your speed, you might find yourself getting dizzy. If so, simply rest sitting in the chair for a while. Eventually the exercise will strengthen your vestibular system and improve your balance. You’ll find yourself becoming less concerned about approaching and leaving the floor.
And your future, falling self, with thank you. If you find yourself in sudden descent (tripping over a tree root, or a uneven sidewalk), you’ll have the body/muscle memory that will help you avoid panic and move through your fall.
By learning how to fall in this way, you can overcome basic anxieties and lessen the chance of injury with your new smooth landing.
-Frank Wildman, PhD