How to get over a fear of falling

These 5 confidence-building strategies can help you overcome your anxiety — and help you live the life you want

Nancy Fitzgerald
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If you’ve ever taken a tumble, you know there’s one thing that stays with you long after your bruises — and your pride — have healed: the fear of falling again. In fact, up to 77% of older adults struggle with falling-related anxiety, according to a report in the journal Gait & Posture

And it turns out that the anxiety could be just as dangerous as an actual fall, note researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. Fear of a repeat accident has been shown to slow down recovery from an injury, which can have longer term impacts. 

Equally concerning, a fear of falling is risky for those who haven’t stumbled. A 2018 study in the journal PLOS One found that this specific worry can make you twice as likely to fall as people who aren’t afraid, whether you’ve suffered a previous fall or not. 

The reason: Stress. 

“Stress isn’t just emotional. It’s physical, too,” says Gary Kennedy, M.D., a geriatric psychiatrist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. “When you’re uptight and scared, your response is to tighten up. And when that happens, you lose flexibility and you’re more likely to fall.” 

About 1 in 4 adults over age 65 fall every year, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That translates to about 36 million people off their feet. 

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Not every fall leads to an injury, of course, but fear of it happening again can spiral into a huge problem, says Dr. Kennedy. It can make you avoid doing the things you enjoy. It can keep you from venturing outside your house, leading to loneliness and social isolation. All of this can have a big impact on your physical and mental health. 

Fortunately, fall-prevention is relatively straightforward. Replacing loose carpets, installing better lighting and doing balance training can all help keep you from tripping and hurting yourself. But just as important is learning to cope with anxiety about future accidents.  

“Don’t be a victim of your fear. Take steps to get your life back,” says Justin Mierzwicki, D.P.T., a board-certified clinical specialist in geriatric physical therapy and a certified exercise expert for aging adults based in Annville, Pennsylvania.  

These 5 confidence-building strategies can help you feel stronger, safer and more stable.  

Confidence-builder #1: Keep moving  

Giving up your fitness routine is one of the worst things you can do to cope. “Lack of exercise is at the heart of the fear of falling,” says Mierzwicki. “It can get you into a vicious cycle.” 

You might think that the less you’re on your feet, the less likely you are to fall. But by being less active, you’ll cause more problems, says Mierzwicki. “You’ll lose muscle and bone mass and actually increase your likelihood of falling over time,” he adds. 

Keep moving, but start out simple. “Go out for a walk every morning after you have your coffee,” recommends Dr. Kennedy. “Make it part of your routine. It will help you reduce your fears and your risk.” 

Going out daily helps build your confidence, as well as your physical strength. Tai chi — a gentle series of movements performed slowly while breathing deeply — is another proven way for older adults to improve their balance, prevent falls, and overcome their fear. In a 2018 study, seniors who completed an 8-week tai chi class reduced their fear of falling by more than a third. 

Try tai chi with Renew

Interested in trying tai chi? Renew’s workout videos include beginner-friendly tai chi exercises. To access them, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then find Workout Videos in the Quick Links section. Not a member? Learn more here

Confidence-builder #2: Work with a physical therapist 

Tensing up your muscles when there’s an obstacle in your path is common — but it can put you at risk, says Mierzwicki. It’s also common for older adults who’ve experienced a fall to begin to shorten their stride, thinking the switch will help them stay upright. In fact, this kind of shuffling motion can also increase your odds of tripping. 

“These strategies actually reduce your ability to react,” says Mierzwicki. “So if there’s a crack in the floor or a curb to negotiate, you’ll be less able to adapt your walking motion to stay stable.” 

A physical therapist can help you learn better, safer ways of walking. They are trained to assess your individual needs and give you a personal plan tailored just for you. 

“Some people might need exercises to increase their strength and power, while others might need training to improve the height of the steps they take so they can avoid missing a curb or a stair,” he explains. 

One other thing a physical therapist can do is show you how to use a walking aid properly. Canes and walkers can be great tools to help you feel more secure. But sometimes they can backfire, says Mierzwicki. 

“Using a walker or a cane can help you improve your balance and reduce your risk of falls, but only if they’re used properly and fit correctly,” he says. “I’ve seen them cause falls when people haven’t been trained to use them safely — or when they don’t fit.” 

And don’t forget to talk to your primary care provider. Your Annual Wellness Visit is a good time to discuss your worries. Your provider can assess your fall risk and go over a fall-prevention plan. They can also help you decide if you’d benefit from visits with a physical therapist.

How to prepare for your Annual Wellness Visit   

To get the most out of the visit, follow these steps:  

  1. Schedule your appointment. If you need help finding a network provider, our online search tools can help. Sign in to your plan website and click on Find Care.  
  2. Download your Annual Care Checklist. Use this list of health topics to get the conversation started with your provider. Go to the Health & Wellness section of your plan website and type Annual Care Checklist in the search bar.
  3. Call Customer Service if you have questions. Our team is here for you 7 days a week. Call the number on the back of your member ID card.  

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Confidence-builder #3: Keep doing the things you love 

Don’t let your fear of falling lead you to give up your weekly bridge club or your afternoons volunteering at the library. 

“Avoiding activities may be a natural response to fear, but it won’t help in the long run,” says Elizabeth Phelan, M.D., a geriatrician and director of the Fall Prevention Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle. “Instead, it can lead to social isolation and loneliness.” 

Isolation and loneliness are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and higher rates of anxiety and depression, notes the CDC. Dr. Phelan says she encourages her patients to address their worries by inviting a friend to pick them up and join them for outings, events and appointments. 

Or use the senior transportation available in your community. Your local Area Agency on Aging can put you in touch with services that will help get you out of the house. They’ll even help connect you with activities at local community centers. To find an Area Agency on Aging near you, go to www.n4a.org and use the locator tool on the home page.

Confidence-builder #4: Reach out for help 

Keeping your fears to yourself can lead to depression and anxiety — two mental health conditions that are common among people who have a fear of falling, says Dr. Phelan. 

“Fear of falling is a type of anxiety, and as with any other anxiety, you have to face it head-on with approaches that work,” says Dr. Phelan. “Let your doctor know about your fear. We’re attuned to the issues, and we want to help you live a happier, more worry-free life.” 

Your provider can recommend a therapist to help you find practical ways to cope. One effective treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It’s a type of talk therapy that teaches you new ways to think and act when you’re feeling anxious. A recent study of more than 400 older adults taking part in a group CBT program saw significant decreases in both fear of falling and depression. 

Try a virtual visit for your mental health care

Most UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage plans include a virtual visit, also known as telehealth appointments, for a private mental health evaluation or for treatment of general mental health conditions. To find a list of participating virtual providers, sign in to your plan website and click on Find Care. Not a member? Learn more here.  

Confidence-builder #5: Visualize your success 

“Professional athletes do this all the time,” says Dr. Kennedy. “They think about a particular play, they visualize how they are going to do it. They see an image of themselves actually doing it. They practice mentally, then they do it physically.” 

You can do that, too. Think of all the times you haven’t fallen — that’s almost all the time! Now, picture your morning walk, for instance, and imagine how you’ll deal with that crack in the sidewalk down the street. In your mind, plan how you’ll avoid the hazard, then mentally watch yourself succeeding. You’ve got this! 

Another good strategy is deep breathing. It’s a proven technique to calm anxiety, according to a report from Harvard Medical School. To get started, take a normal breath, followed by a deep, slow breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try it a few times. Once you’ve got the hang of it, do it whenever the thought of falling makes you feel anxious. 

More ways to help lower your risk of falling

Renew offers a variety of helpful resources and activities to help reduce your risk of falling. From articles and strength exercises to tips on how to trip-proof your home, we have you covered. Sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness to get started. Not a member? Learn more here.