Fear of Falling

I recently did a steep hike in snow that was deeper than I expected. I should have worn snowshoes instead of the snow cleats that weren’t quite enough to keep me from slipping where the incline was too sharp. I had hiked this trail—in all seasons—dozens of times before, yet I suddenly felt anxious, as if one wrong step and I would fall, possibly hurt myself or tumble down the slope.

I wasn’t in grave danger—the trees below would have stopped me from going too far. My fear, I think, came more from feeling that I could easily lose control. Last summer I took a rough tumble from an e-bike—my first attempt at riding an electric bike. I had some nasty bruising but nothing serious. What was scarier was that I couldn’t control the bike or my fall into a ditch.

Maybe I’m not as strong as I think I am or want to believe I am. It’s difficult to accept, because I’ve spent my whole life being physically active—bicycling, swimming, walking, snowshoeing and both downhill and cross-country skiing. For the most part I was confident in my body, except for those times when I accidentally landed on a black- diamond ski run and had to gingerly make my way down the steep slope.

I know that getting weaker and losing flexibility is part of the aging process. My physical therapist told me that older people have to work to maintain our strength and balance, because if we do nothing, we’ll lose muscle mass, strength and the ability to balance. To increase my balance, my PT wants me to do exercises where I stand on one foot, which is difficult, but if I close my eyes and so can’t gauge my body in my surroundings, it’s impossible. How did I lose my body?

There are many physical reasons why we get weaker as we age, but I have to wonder if my fear of falling is partly psychological. As I get older, it feels like my body is betraying me, even as I maintain my daily regimen of exercise—20 minutes of yoga and a walk/hike that is shorter than it used to be but still aerobic.  Yet, despite my heroic efforts to stop the aging process, the physical losses pile up—neuropathy in my feet, osteoporosis in my arms and legs, arthritis in my hands and hips, sinus problems, etc.—something new crops up every week. Everyone can fill in the blank with their own physical problems.

The bottom line is that I feel I can no longer trust my body—this body that once used to easily handle ski slopes, ice skate, dive into swimming pools and lakes. That body—and the person who was so confident about her athletic abilities—is gone forever. The only answer is to accept my limitations and be cautious—continue to wear my snow cleats if I’m on snow-packed or icy trails—and accept that I’ll never again downhill ski, even on easy runs.

10 thoughts on “Fear of Falling

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  1. In recent years my doctors have put the fear of falling in my head, even though I haven’t yet. Every office visit, the first question is “have you fallen?” as though it’s expected of me. It’s made me very tentative in anything less than perfect conditions — level ground, no obstacles, secure dry footing, etc. I try to be cautious, but they’ve practically convinced me that it’s inevitable. I haven’t been nearly as diligent as you about exercise, but a walk around the block doesn’t compare to a mountain trail. Aside from being severely “deconditioned,” I’m pretty healthy. I’m grateful for that.


    1. I agree that we’ve all been conditioned to be afraid of falling. All those stories about older people who fell, broke something and then never recovered. Being “pretty healthy” is pretty good, I think.


  2. My sister, a nurse’s aide who works with the elderly, tells me that a fall is typically the beginning of the decline into death. I recall slipping on ice a couple of years ago and, in the endless moment between my feet sliding out from under me and my contact with the ground, thinking, “This could be the moment when my life changes forever.” Happily, I only cracked a rib. But there’s something about your post that troubles me: the bit about no longer trusting your body. I know exactly what you mean, of course, but I find it more fruitful to think in terms of how much my body can trust me. It’s done its very best for more than seven decades; it can’t help its inevitable degeneration. Like you, I do everything I can to support it—walking, weight training, a decent diet, etc. I expect that these efforts make us trustworthy stewards of the framework still functioning for us. We’re doing our best, too! Losing faith in a physical structure that was born to deteriorate and die seems like a harsh judgment!


    1. Jennifer, you’re absolutely right. I need to appreciate all that’s good with my body and be grateful for all the joy it’s brought me over the years. It’s just a new sensation for me to feel tentative.


  3. The hardest aspect of aging is letting go of people, skills, hobbies etc that we love. In each case, creativity and adaptation are the keys to joy. I miss bike riding a lot, but guess what? My granddaughter raced me through a botanical garden recently…hair blowing in the breeze…in a wheelchair. I don’t use a wheelchair normally, but the thrill recalled my love of bike riding. I won’t ever bike ride again, but I can enjoy life without a bike.


    1. thanks for your reminder to stay open to life. I love your story about racing your granddaughter in the wheelchair. What fun.


  4. I too try to out work theaging process and realize I’m still losing ground. I got up onto my roof a few days ago. I know old people, like myself, make mistakes even when being careful but I was careful and I was ok. I still go hunting with my old dogs. It’s sad to see how stiff and sore one of them is the next day. I think the rough conditions of the forest will help me remain able. Thank you for the thoughtful article. I read and enjoy them even when I don’t respond.


    1. Thanks, Frank. My father got on the roof when he was in his 80s, mostly because he was cheap and didn’t want to pay anyone to do what he could. Luckily, he didn’t have any accidents–and lived to 95. I agree that being in the forest is a good challenge for staying strong. Sorry to hear about your dog.

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