Upstairs, downstairs: Advice on walking please!
April 10, 2012 4:22 PM   Subscribe

If you've improved your ability to walk down stairs or down escalator steps, how did you do it?

If you've improved your ability to walk down stairs or down escalator steps, how did you do it?

I 've always had issues with walking down stairs, and moving to a city with long escalators that are sometimes broken or shut off has made this particularly noticeable. Especially when walking down stopped escalators, I start feeling unbalanced and nauseous, the pattern of the stairs make me dizzy, and I start walking so slow that I almost stop (and sometimes do, to take a break). Towards the end of a particularly long stopped escalator, my legs feel like jelly and it feels as if I'm confused by the process of walking, and don't know how to step down one foot after the other. I sometimes try not to look at the steps, and spot somewhere up and ahead, but it's really, really hard not to look at where I'm about to step. Should I keep working on that or is there something more important/key to focus on?

Now, it's not so bad that I have to take the bus or drive everywhere rather than taking the train, but I'm wondering if there are any tricks to help me with this. It's possibly partially a fear of heights/falling. I don't have this problem with up stairs (then I just have the problem that I'm out of shape and have to stop to catch my breath - ha)

Ideally I'd get to the point where I can jog down the steps (I know - first things first!), so it's also great if you have tips for that, and maybe it'll help with my current issue as well.


(and, why yes, I do ride the Red Line in DC frequently, how did you know?)
posted by NikitaNikita to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
A person I know had exactly this problem until she started taking anxiety meds.
posted by thirteenkiller at 4:24 PM on April 10, 2012

1. Anxiety meds.

2. I try to always hold the hand rail and instead of looking down at my feet moving I look down at my hand. I also try to control my breathing (sometimes you can head off an anxiety attack by not letting your breathing get out of control).
posted by spunweb at 4:36 PM on April 10, 2012

Contacts that correct my astigmatism. Depth perception is my friend. I still get vertigo but much, much less.

Anxiety meds wouldn't have helped me at all, fwiw. I think getting your ears, eyes and balance checked first would be a good idea.
posted by fshgrl at 4:40 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

My mom developed symptoms that sound a lot like this in her 20s. It turned out to be platybasia - her vertebrae were pressing on her skull and therefore her brain. I may be getting the description technically somewhat wrong, but she had surgery and it was corrected. That's quite rare I think and I'm not suggesting you have that, but have you been to a dr to see if there's something physically affecting your balance?
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:50 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

So I have knee problems that sometimes flare up and walking down stairs hurt when they do. As a result I sometimes go down stairs backwards (holding the railing). It's a very different experience, both visually and how it feels (not just in my knees, I mean, but how the whole motion feels), and it's not actually any harder, though it is slightly slower than I can go down them facing forward. I'm not sure if this would be a great idea or a terrible idea for your situation, but I am throwing it out there as an option.
posted by brainmouse at 4:55 PM on April 10, 2012

Upbeat music to keep the beat of your feet steady. Hand on the railing. Don't look up! I have a nasty habit of wanting to look at strangers on the opposite escalator, but if I get distracted, I get instantly unsteady. So I just watch about two steps in front of me or follow the gait of the person in front of me. It also helps if I wear contacts instead of glasses, which leads me to believe this is partly a depth perception issue.

For what it's worth, DC's escalators are supposedly slower than most, which seems to unnerve a lot of people not used to the speed.
posted by theraflu at 5:02 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I go down stairs with my foot angled almost parallel to each step, which means that I'm positioned sideways with ALL of my sole supported.

Oddly enough, I go up stairs on the tips of my toes, so go figure.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:05 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I dunno how much this might help, but it helped me. When I was younger I was notoriously clumsy, at times falling up stairs. I had high insteps, and weak ankles, which used to twist out from under me at the worst times.

Anyway, looking for a meditative experience, I took a few t'ai chi classes, and while I didn't attain nirvana (mixed metaphor), I found that I improved my balance, conquered my weak ankle, and stopped being quite as clumsy. I also seemed to reduce the frequency of my jaw popping out.

So maybe some sort of poise-balance related discipline would help you, too.
posted by dhartung at 5:10 PM on April 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Especially when walking down stopped escalators, I start feeling unbalanced and nauseous, the pattern of the stairs make me dizzy

Grab the rail and close your eyes. Your feet know what to do.

If you don't want to close your eyes, just don't look at your feet. Pick a point in space and stare at it.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:14 PM on April 10, 2012

Like MonkeyToes, I go down stairs at an angle, although mine is more like 45-30 degrees from parallel. I find it's slightly more efficient and I learned it in the NYC subways. Escalators are trickier - not looking at them helps, but they're not really designed to be traversed as stairs, they just happen to work that way in a pinch/almost all the time in DC.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:24 PM on April 10, 2012

If anxiety really is the root of your problem, learning to do some deep breathing/meditating will help you because you will have some tricks to calm yourself. There are plenty of CDs (and free podcasts) that teach you how to do this, look for "progressive muscle relaxation" and "body scans" to start.
posted by radioamy at 5:29 PM on April 10, 2012

Don't look down. Look ahead at where you're going. Not down.
posted by jasper411 at 5:32 PM on April 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hey, former Dupont Circle stop regular. I could go down really fast, as long as I kept my head up (relying on peripheral vision to alert me to bags or feet of the standers) and not thinking about what I was doing. If I looked down at my feet or started to think about the process, I'd get dizzy and uncoordinated. Once I ran down - really ran - but I was being chased. Didn't fall because I was too busy thinking about the lunatic chasing me.
posted by rtha at 5:36 PM on April 10, 2012

Walking down stairs uses the muscles differently, could it be that you need to build a little strength/endurance in those muscles?
posted by gjc at 5:36 PM on April 10, 2012

I have trouble going down long stairs, because I have very short Achilles tendons and terrible depth perception and a tendency to vertigo. I do what Monkey Toes and cobaltnine describe--going down at a bit of an angle, like the showgirls in a Busby Berkeley number, while looking straight ahead. That mostly is fine. Shutting my eyes makes the vertigo worse. Sometimes focusing on the shoulders of someone walking ahead of me helps.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:14 PM on April 10, 2012

Oh, and doing exercises with a wobble board helped me improve my balance quite a bit, as well as being a good core workout.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:21 PM on April 10, 2012

I have knee issues, so stairs can be a process. Sometimes for down stairs, I'll basically put all my weight on my hand on the guard rail and then pretty much skate down the stairs with my feet, if that makes sense. It does end up going at jog-like speed. This requires a decent rail, though - metal is good, polished wood, etc. If it's a rubber escalator rail the friction you'll get won't allow you to slide like you'll need to.
posted by vegartanipla at 6:24 PM on April 10, 2012

Wow, I had the exact same issues on those red line escalators -- to the point that, before I read the end of your question, I thought, 'wow, I had that same issue on DC escalators!'. I also get very nervous going down other steep stairs or hills or if I'm somewhere like a stadium with steep aisles. I don't have a fear of heights, but I definitely have a fear of falling down stairs (no problem going up them), though it's not crippling. I definitely think it's just a type of anxiety, not some physical issue, though I would never say that you shouldn't have something checked out, just in case.

What helps me (and helped me on the red line escalators) was looking at my hand on the railing, as one poster mentioned (though is that the escalator where the handrail doesn't really move along with the escalator well? I feel like I remember some escalator in my past did that), or on just the steps or two in front of me. If your issue is like mine, it's not so scary to look down at those next couple of steps, because the thing that's scary is the whole vast expanse of escalator and tunnel ahead of you, not the drop to the next step. So try keeping your eyes down, not forward.

For walking down, maybe try doing ten or so steps at a time, focusing only on that small block of steps ahead of you.

(I find the idea of looking up really scary, but maybe it would work for you).
posted by imalaowai at 6:38 PM on April 10, 2012

I don't know how to explain this well and you've said you're not there yet, but you also said it might help.

I've heard walking described as a series of controlled falls, and I think going down hills or stairs is a similar process. When I'm flying down stairs, I just let myself go. I let my legs feel like jelly. I let myself fall, drop.
posted by aniola at 11:44 PM on April 10, 2012

I relate to your description. What works for me: taking off my glasses so that there is no peripheral distortion in my vision; holding onto the handrail, if there is one, or even just grazing the wall with my fingers; and most especially, finding a rhythm for both my feet and breathing, because for me, it's sort of like I'm afraid I'm going to step too far or too short, or somehow lose the pattern of the stairs. So even a steady "one two, one two," at whatever pace works. If I were going to go down the same long flight of steps regularly, I would find a song that works for it every time. Maybe something like "We Are Marching To Pretoria," if you know that one.
posted by Ellemeno at 4:47 AM on April 11, 2012

I still have issues with those really long escalators, but here's my little story:

I never had issues with heights and going down stairs until I went to Peru in 2008. I got a really horrible bout of vertigo when going down the stairs in the hostel we were staying in in Cusco, and from that point until around a year and a half ago ago, I had vertigo EVERY time I went down stairs. I couldn't get on a down escalator at all, and stairs were a real challenge. I remember creeping down the stairs of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, stopping and squishing myself against the wall to let people get by, feeling so awful.

That was a great trip to Peru, but MAN that got frustrating. Everything is high up! That is not a place to suddenly develop vertigo! I would link a picture of me clinging to a wall at Macchu Picchu while climbing up some stairs, but it's just too embarrassing.

Here's what (mostly) fixed it: I realized I was just afraid. I had been walking around thinking that somehow the altitude sickness triggered it, or that I had hit some point of being too out of shape, or that there was some other physical reason that made me dizzy on stairs, but something someone said or something I read made me realize that no, I was just really scared that I was going to fall. Knowing that made a big difference.

I can't even tell you why it did. It's not like I thought about it very hard or meditated on it or even stopped to think about it every time I went down stairs. I think that I was just so embarrassed by the whole thing that knowing that it was just in my head mostly fixed it.

I still get a little dizzy on stairs when I am really tired, though. I think that's because the fear of falling is greater when I know I am not so steady on my feet.

I have no idea if this is helpful, as I know that sometimes people really do have issues that are out of their control that cause problems like that. But if you are like me, convincing yourself that it's all in your head might help.
posted by hought20 at 5:42 AM on April 11, 2012

Somebody mentioned this above but I wear glasses and I find it much easier to walk down long steps if I take them off. Otherwise my depth perception gets thrown off because the edge of the glasses is right where the steps are. So if you wear glasses try taking them off and looking straight ahead.
posted by interplanetjanet at 6:05 AM on April 11, 2012

Response by poster: I haven't reached dizzying speeds of descent, but so far I have improved with handrail holding, angled foot steps (helps land my whole foot on the step), and I also occasionally look where people disembark, because it is a somewhat neutral spot between obsessing over the steps below my feet, and forcing myself to keep my head/eyes pointed up in the air.
posted by NikitaNikita at 1:27 PM on January 1, 2013

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