Fear of Falling

Winter has only just begun and already I’ve heard about several incidents of injuries from falls, at least one of them serious.  Of course, anyone can fall at any time of the year, but it seems like winter is a particularly dangerous time when ice and snow accumulate all around us. Some falls result from what we call “black ice”.  This is that devilish condition when a thin layer of ice on asphalt is invisible to the eye.  When encountered it can cause supports like feet, bicycle tires or even autos to slide perilously.  Another insidious form of hidden ice occurs frequently in my area where daytime sunshine causes standing snow to melt and then refreeze when the sun goes down and temperatures fall.  This condition can be particularly precarious when another layer of snow falls on top obscuring the ice layer below so you don’t know where it is until you step on it.

Although older adults seem more prone to falls, and many studies show that the consequences of falling for older adults can be particularly dire, no one is immune from falls.  There are many articles featuring suggestions for preventing falls.  All you have to do is Google “Fall Prevention” and you will find examples.  But I would like to focus on the causes that I see most frequently and that I think can be at least partially addressed with training.  First and foremost is failure to pay attention.  Our modern lifestyle seems to encourage hurrying.  We worry about slowing down when there are people behind us.  Or making that car wait for more than a few seconds while we cross a street.  Something distracts us and we forget to pay attention to our surroundings.  Have you ever been looking down at your feet (or your cell phone) and suddenly been hit in the head with a tree branch?  Admittedly I’m guilty of that one.  So the first piece of advice I would give is slow down.  Look around you in all directions.  Be aware of your surroundings.  Make sure your next step is on firm ground.  Sometimes I will take my foot and just slide it back and forth in front of me to make sure my next step is not on ice.  That car that’s waiting for you to pass is most likely not going to run you over.  And no matter where you’re going, the extra few minutes will not make any difference in the long run.  Unless they save you from injury.  Then, in fact, the extra few minutes might make a huge difference!

The second most frequent cause of falls I’ve observed or heard about is not taking proper precautions.  For example, not wearing appropriate shoes.  You think “I’m only going out for a few minutes.  I can make it in my high heels.”  Perhaps that’s a little extreme, but you get the picture.  You get away with it once and think it won’t be a problem the next time.  And maybe it’s not.  Until it is.  Wouldn’t it be better to just take that extra few moments to be safe.  I could go into a big rant here about the footwear industry and how it encourages us (especially women) to wear inappropriate shoes, but I’ll save that for another time.  Suffice it to say that most of you know what works in these situations.  It often comes down to the choices you make.  It’s also important to remember that just because you’ve been careful to clear your own walkways, this may not be the case everywhere you need to go.

There are many reasons why people fall.  Some of them are related to physical conditions or side-effects of medication.  If you have these types of concerns hopefully you will get professional advice on how to deal with them.   But so many falls result from preventable circumstances that it’s worth another reminder.  This provides yet another reason to tout the benefits of movement practices.  Mind-body practices like yoga, Pilates and others can help you to learn to pay more attention to the way you move.  These practices help encourage strength, flexibility and balance.  We think of balance as being able to stand on one foot.  But practicing balance exercises can also be a way to strengthen the muscles that will help you catch yourself and avoid falling.  Or help you get up if you do fall.  Holding onto something because you fear falling might be helpful, but wouldn’t it be better if the muscles that support you were stronger.

Mobility has been described as more than just being able to move, but also maintaining strength through a full range of motion.  Stability is the quality that enables one to retain or regain position when impacted by an external force.  So, for example, if you’re standing and something pushes you, you’re ability to recover your position would be a way to measure stability.  So you can see how mobility and stability go hand in hand.  Then there is flexibility which might be described as the quality of being able to bend without breaking.  Clearly all of these traits are also necessary components for good balance.  If you feel stronger and more stable you will also gain confidence.  Fear can make us tense.  Tension makes us brittle and rigid.  Rigidity is the opposite of flexibility. Tension zaps energy and strength.  So learning to relax can be as important as all the other elements of balance.  Breathing practices, also an important component of mind-body practices such as yoga and Pilates, can help relieve tension and encourage relaxation.  They also help you slow down and recognize that few circumstances merit the hurrying we often feel is so necessary.

Finally, being in good physical condition might not prevent a fall, but it will certainly help you recover from one.  And cultivating more conscious awareness of your mind and your movements can help you in all aspects of your life.   If you haven’t tried it yet, it’s never too late.  If you can move and breathe, there is a practice for you.  Take the time to find one.  You won’t be sorry.  And it just might save you from yourself.

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Redefining Ritual

Dictionary.com defines “ritual” as “a prescribed or established rite, ceremony, proceeding, or service”.  Other sources further clarify ritual as “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly” or “a ceremony in which the actions and wording follow a prescribed form and order”.  Most definitions refer to ritual as part of religious observance, but I would suggest that the meaning is broader than that.  To me the term refers to any sequence of activities that is performed repeatedly at certain times in an established manner.

Rituals can be a source of comfort for people, especially at times when the way forward is not immediately clear.  For example, funerals are a ritual that people turn to when a death occurs.  It gives the survivors a path to follow which can help them acknowledge and begin to deal with the loss.  Having experienced death in my own family I understand the value of having a set procedure that dictates the expected order of events.  Sometimes this can become a way to postpone the actual process of grieving, but still it helps pave the way through the transition from the known to the unknown.  So ritual can be a good thing.

As with anything, though, when taken to extremes rituals can be harmful. Following rituals can become a ritual in itself.  Some people become so fixated on the process that they forget the meaning.  The need to adhere to the order of activities becomes so rigid that eliminating  or changing any piece of the ritual for whatever reason can be a cause for distress.  So as with anything, applying moderation is usually recommended.

We have just emerged from a season that is rife with rituals of all kinds.  Whether traditional or recent, there are rituals at every turn.  There are songs, movies and plays that are only performed at this time of year.   There is Black Friday and, more recently, Cyber Monday.  Add to that parades, decorating trees and houses, photos with Santa, Salvation Army bell-ringers, office parties, and distributing gifts to those less fortunate than ourselves.  All of these activities are every bit as ritualistic as the religious rites that also play a role in this multi-week celebration. Some of you reading this may scoff at the inclusion of these activities as ritual.  But they are all a part of our communal culture.  When participating in these rituals we are often able to set aside our differences and share an experience that is familiar to all.

Many of us have daily routines that border on ritual.  This is certainly true for me.  I rarely have to look at the clock after getting out of bed since most days I perform the same tasks in the same order every morning.  There are slight variations depending on my schedule, and, of course, circumstances can arise that require alterations, but usually I follow a specific set of practices.  From time to time my usual routine is disrupted for one reason or another.  Sometimes the disruption is temporary, but a true life change can require crafting a new routine that fits the new set of circumstances.

If you examine your own life I suspect you will find activities that you try to maintain consistently at reasonably regular intervals.  When these are thrown off for whatever reason, it can leave you feeling a bit out of sorts or disoriented.  Think about all of the rituals in your life that you have adhered to for long periods of time.  If you’ve maintained them, they must be important to you for one reason or another.  But you weren’t born with the need for them.  It’s a process you’ve learned.  This means you can continue to learn new ones.

At this moment we are in the middle of another annual ritual:  the making of New Year’s resolutions.  Despite the fact that every day is a new day and a new opportunity, we are all urged to latch on to this particular date to make changes in our lives.  New Year’s resolutions often revolve around forming a new habit or routine.  Yup – a ritual.  Due to our modern lifestyle, it seems that the most common call is to exercise more and/or lose weight, but there are others.  Maybe you want to listen more attentively or meditate regularly or read more.  There are any number of ways in which we feel we need to improve ourselves and numerous articles on how to make resolutions that work. Making resolutions is easy.  Sticking to them is much more difficult.  So rather than talk about how to make the change, I’d rather focus on what to do when you realize that the best laid plans have somehow disintegrated.

When you recognize that a new ritual is not working and changes need to be made, it is important to think not only about the logistics (e.g., time of day, type of action, obstacles presented) and the various (valid, no doubt) excuses that can be made.  But it is equally or even more important to examine your reasons for wanting to incorporate this new routine into your life in the first place.  How much do you really want to make this change?  Why do you want to make this change?  Are you willing to rearrange something else in your life to accommodate the change? Or is the new demand not calling to you sufficiently to overcome the excuses?  There is no right or wrong here.  These should be decisions you are making for yourself.  The author Gretchen Rubin wrote a book called The Four Tendencieswhich theorizes that most people fit into certain personality categories.  Of course, these categories are not mutually exclusive, but often we find our tendencies toward one category or another.  If you’re interested, you can take the quiz on her website and see where you fit.  Are you  willing to adhere to your ritual whether or not anyone knows about it?  Or perhaps you are looking for approval from someone else.  Maybe you start to make the changes, but then begin to wonder if they really have any value.  Or suddenly you start to think “I don’t have to do this just because it’s expected of me.”  It’s all about being honest with yourself and deciding what is really important to you right now.

When you decide that you really do want to make the change you’ve laid out, but stuff keeps getting in the way, then it’s time to formulate a new plan.  This may mean pulling yourself out of your comfort zone.  Incorporating ritual into your life is similar to forming a habit.  There are varying theories on what it takes to establish a new habit, but most of them involve maintaining a practice for a period of at least 6 weeks.  From that point on, the theory goes,  you’ve established the routine, overcome some of the obstacles and begun to make the ritual a part of your life.  Those around you recognize that it has become a priority for you and, hopefully, will help you stick with it, or at least stop objecting.  An occasional variation from the routine due to circumstances will no longer stop you.  You’ll be able to get right back into your practice as soon as your able.  In fact, you may find that, as described above, you begin to miss the ritual when you aren’t able to complete it.  In my opinion, the key is wanting the ritual in your life enough to help you overcome obstacles.  Then if something arises that threatens to get in your way, you can always remind yourself that your ritual is important enough to you to find a way around the obstacle.  If the obstacle persists, change the ritual. This doesn’t mean to scrap it entirely.  Just find a way to make it work.  Remember, too, that small changes can be a good first step.

If nothing seems to work no matter how hard you try to find a way, then maybe the time just isn’t right for you to start this practice right now.  That’s OK, too.  But if you really want to do it, keep looking for that opening.  It may turn up in a way that you didn’t anticipate.  An open mind might be the most important requirement for finding your way to your best self.