Fear of Falling

fear of falling

When orderlies move the non-ambulatory patient they slide their hands between the person and the bedding. It is a delicate, intimate thing to do. To touch someone there. But not just touch – hold and lift. Support.

On my count, the lead-lifter may say. One, two, three.

In the non-ambulatory patient support of this type is vital. It is a kindness to prevent panic and fear.

Do you remember before you walked? I don’t think it is a memory most can recall. It is just too far back. What fear did you as a toddler feels as you pulled yourself on to your two stumpy feet and tottered away from the safety of the sofa?

For fear of falling is a primal fear. There is no stopping it. We have it like the rest of the animal kingdom. It is deep in our ancient brain. When animals are lead to slaughter one of the biggest improvements in their welfare is seen if you can prevent them from slipping. When a hoofed animal’s foot moves rapidly beneath it to prevent it from falling then this is slipping, and slipping is scary and causes a stress reaction and release of cortisol. Of course it is measurable in observable ways that does not need test tubes. It is written over the face of a slipping cow and it is in their vocalisation. When you see the white of a cow’s eyes you know you are seeing panic. What makes pain and fear so unrecognisable to us with the big brains?

An abattoir of high standard should have less than 1% falling and less than 5% vocalisation in their animals.

Walking calmly to your death is not as stressful as slipping your way there. I think of the hangman and the fall away beneath the feet of the box or opening of the trapdoor floor. A fraction before your neck is snapped no doubt there is that unsupported feeling. Falling.

What then makes some people able to override their fear of falling and take to the rocky sides of mountains or the sheer face of cliffs? Do they have an insufficient amygdala incapable of arousal?

You hear screams of panic at amusement parks where people willingly place themselves in positions where they feel unsupported and as if they are falling. Somehow the knowledge that the ride is safe is enough security for people to voluntarily place themselves in a simulated fall. They feel the adrenaline release as they plummet and soar again, await the rise and then the fall. People report that they feel more alive after the ride. It is the brain chemicals that have fired and their release is addictive.

A pony-tailed man throws a delighted toddler in the air. He is unsupported and higher than ever before. On his face is pure pleasure. A squeal. A laugh. A giggle. Machine-like. He looks forward, not down. His mouth agape, his eyes twinkling. Each time caught and then thrown up again. Like the surprise of the jack-in-the-box, the thrill gradually subsides, and the fun wears off. The chemicals are exhausted, depleted. Kaput. Till next time. Throw me higher. Make it faster. Spin me more. Us and our addictive brains.