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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One Thing at a Time

In this age of distractions, attempting to focus on one thing at a time can be surprisingly difficult.  A recent article in the New York Times cited a couple of studies demonstrating the pitfalls of so-called multi-tasking.  Are you listening to music while you read this?  Or maybe someone is talking to you.  Or you might be in a crowded or noisy environment where a loud noise could take your mind away from your reading. This may seem like a minor thing, but according to these studies multi-tasking can “double the number of errors made in assigned tasks”.  In fact, it turns out, by trying to do more within the same period of time, you actually accomplish less.

Interestingly, I was able to actually prove this to myself while I was reading the article.  Any of you who read online news have probably already noticed that advertising peppers the page you are reading from.  Advertisers actually count on your inability to resist distraction. About half-way through the article a little video appeared at the side of the page. Despite my best efforts to focus on the article, the lure of the video was unavoidable.  Without even realizing it, I found myself glancing over to the movement.  The sound was turned off so I don’t even know what the video was about but as soon as I realized that I had been sucked into the distraction vortex I had to laugh. I couldn’t help but wonder if the author of the article was aware of the irony.  Stanford professor Clifford Nash, who was part of a research team that published an article on this subject for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls this being a “sucker for irrelevancy”.  Isn’t that the truth!

The problems with multi-tasking don’t stop there.  People who multi-task may think they are maximizing accomplishments, but according to a study conducted at the University of California, Irvine, multi-taskers are actually less productive.  In fact, distractions make the original task take about 50% longer “compared to focusing on one task through to completion before starting the next one”.  Furthermore, it turns out that multi-tasking actually depletes your neural resources contributing to the mental exhaustion you might feel at the end of each day. As the Times article points out the “term ‘brain dead’ suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.”

There are other factors that contribute to being easily distracted or having difficulty focusing on one thing at a time.  These include stress and lack of adequate sleep.  But the constant noise of our 24/7 world makes avoiding distractions especially difficult.  Try and picture the last time you were in a noise-free, media-free environment for any length of time.  Many of us have become so accustomed to constant noise that we have actually developed what could be considered an addiction. Admittedly, this is true for me.  Not only do I run a fan at night year-round for “white noise” to sleep by, but I also confess to being a long-time radio junkie.  Until very recently when I stopped wanting the constant bombardment of news, I used to have the radio playing as “background noise” all day long.  Some people use TV for the same purpose.  My husband and I have lived without commercial TV for the past 10 years so I have managed to eliminate that noise from my daily life.  But as many of you know I am now a podcast addict so I guess I’ve just substituted one form of distraction for another.

This is where yoga and Pilates come to the rescue helping me to learn how to focus my attention on one task at a time.  The Times article refers to “monotasking” as a “21st-century term for what your high school English teacher probably just called ‘paying attention.'” Those of you who follow this blog will probably recognize learning to pay attention as a benefit of mind-body movement modalities.  As I’ve noted in earlier blog posts getting injured is often a direct result of not paying attention.  According to psychologist and Stanford lecturer Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct , monotasking is “something that needs to be practiced”.  There’s another term mentioned frequently on this blog: practice.  Think about it.  Given the obstacles, it’s not surprising that learning to focus on one thing at a time requires practice.  But the benefits are worth the effort.  It turns out that monotasking “can also make work itself more enjoyable.”

Still it’s not easy to concentrate one’s focus.  As a typical “Type A” personality I can definitely attest to that.  However, I know how much yoga and Pilates have helped me learn how to practice.  And every day presents new opportunities for practice.  For example, throughout the day I will often find myself starting one task and suddenly remembering something else that draws me in another direction.  When this happens I have learned to remind myself to finish the first thing first.  I may even have to say it out loud to myself:  “Finish this first!” If I need to I can make a physical note (that is, write it down) of the “something else” so I won’t forget to do it when I’m done with the first thing.  This is just one example of how I have learned to practice.

Years ago, I remember taking a time management course. The instructor talked about the things that need immediate attention vs. the things that have the appearance of needing immediate attention.  The latter are usually distractions.  When you’re in a yoga or Pilates class and putting all of your attention into connecting your mind with your body you will probably find that there is no room in your head for anything else. But still your mind may try to pull you in another direction.  This is the siren call of something having the appearance of needing your immediate attention.  When this happens, remind yourself that the other thing will still be there when you are finished with the task at hand. This is your chance to practice.  The more you practice the better you will get at remembering to put the practice into action.  Then you just might find that whatever you’re engaged in actually gets done more efficiently and may even be more enjoyable.