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September 6, 2023/Living Healthy/Senior Health

How To Conquer the Fear of Falling

Staying active and doing what you love may increase both your confidence and your balance

person falling

Are you worrying more about losing your balance as you get older? It’s perfectly normal to worry about falling — and it does happen more often as people age.

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But you don’t have to just live with that fear. In fact, gaining confidence in your gait doesn’t only improve your quality of life. It can — both directly and indirectly — improve your balance, too.

We talked to audiologist and balance disorder expert Julie Honaker, PhD, about basiphobia (fear of falling). She explains where it comes from, why it can compromise your balance and how to overcome it.

What is the fear of falling?

The fear of falling is a natural instinct that most humans and animals have, to some extent. And that’s a good thing. It helps us stay out of unnecessarily dangerous situations and encourages us to be careful when making our way about the world.

But, of course, accidents happen. We all fall from time to time, regardless of our age or health status. That said, falls do tend to occur more often as we get older.

As we get age, a number of different changes can cause us to develop balancing issues. Problems with vision, the inner ear or the sense of touch in a person’s feet and ankles are often at work. These balance issues also can lead to poor muscle control.

The result? About one-third of older adults fall annually.

It’s natural to want to protect yourself from harm, but the fear of falling can go too far. And the consequences for your health can be significant.

Basiphobia can present in many different ways. The following are signs that it’s time to have a discussion with a healthcare provider:

  • A significant increase in fearfulness.
  • A slow or cautious walk or gait.
  • Discomfort engaging in activities you used to enjoy.
  • A wider gait.
  • Reduced head movement.

Where does the fear of falling come from?

Fear of falling is a product of experience. That experience may be yours, but it doesn’t have to be. After all, we all know somebody who’s experienced a life-changing fall.

“Those who fall develop a greater fear of falling,” Dr. Honaker explains. “But even those who don’t fall can develop the fear if they have a friend or loved one who’s fallen. They know the consequences of the injuries and how it can impact their independence.”

Developing a fear of falling can set people up for a negative pattern, Dr. Honaker notes. The uncertainty and lack of confidence may lead people to withdraw from activities they enjoy. Doing so can worsen their balance and make participation even more difficult. “This all puts a person at a greater risk of falling,” she continues. “It’s a vicious cycle that can limit people’s independence.”

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Some people also tighten their muscles when the feel they’re about to fall. Dr. Honaker adds that this stiffening can limit a person’s range of motion and make a fall more likely.

How to overcome the fear

While it’s common to experience fear in the aftermath of a fall — be it yours or somebody else’s — Dr. Honaker says it’s important to be aware of this tendency and work against it. “Do everything you can to continue staying engaged in activities,” she urges.

Here are a few ways to rebuild your confidence:

  • Talk to your primary care provider. If the fear of falling is difficult to manage, your provider needs to know about it. “Your doctor can evaluate your personal fall risk so you can address the problem,” Dr. Honaker explains. “Having this discussion puts you on track with resources that might help you avoid falls in the future.”
  • Exercise. The most important part of managing (or alleviating) your fear of falling is exercising regularly. This directly addresses balance issues by building the strength, flexibility and balance you need to avoid future falls. Good activities for improving balance include tai chi, yoga, Pilates, dance and stretching. Dr. Honaker also recommends activities that get you out and walking in a group setting. “They build up your confidence so you can actively work on your balance.”
  • Get physical therapy. If you have severe balance issues, Dr. Honaker says you’d likely benefit from personalized attention from a physical therapist. Not only can they help determine the reasons for your balance issues, but they also can teach you exercises and adaptations to address them.
  • Use assistive devices. There are a lot of tools out there that can help reduce your risk of falling. Canes, walkers and strategically placed handrails can help you keep your balance while in motion. Grab bars and raised toilet seats can make it easier to go from sitting to standing in the bathroom (those seats are lower than you might think!). You can also get reachers that allow you to pick up items off the floor without bending over.
  • Shine some light on the situation. You can’t avoid tripping over your dog’s favorite toy if you can’t see it! Improve the quality of lighting in your home by increasing the wattage of lightbulbs where you can, replacing standard lightbulbs with “smart” or motion-sensing alternatives and adding night lights throughout your home.
  • Remove loose carpets or rugs. They may be stylish, but rugs and carpets can create uneven surfaces throughout your home. That’s bad news if you have balance issues.
  • Consider talking to a therapist. Fear is a powerful thing. You don’t have to face it alone. Going to counseling can give you an opportunity to talk about your fears and learn tips and tricks for rebuilding your confidence. That can be especially helpful if you or someone you love recently had a bad fall.

Walk tall

A fear of falling (basiphobia) is a natural fear that helps keep us safe. But as we get older and more unsteady on our feet, that fear can severely impact our quality of life. If you’re limiting your activities out of concern over falling, you may actually be increasing your risk. That’s because being active helps us preserve the strength and flexibility we need to maintain our balance.

If you’re worried that staying active puts you in danger, talk to your primary care provider. They can assess your fall risk and recommend next steps.

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