Case Study: "I lose my balance when I look down!"
   Maureen McHugh, Feldenkrais Practitioner                                          703-751-2111

"I lose my balance when I look down!"
by Maureen McHugh

March 2004

This is a story from Carrie Henley, 27 and a resident of Alexandria, Virginia.

The name is a pseudonym, but everything else is true.


When Carrie was five she had a serious injury to her left foot. Afterwards, she was still the happy, outgoing child that she had been before, but her balance was compromised. Walking was a challenge, and running awkward. Despite her difficulties, she learned, by strong perseverance and with the help of her devoted mother, to roller skate. But since she always had to think about her balance, skating was never the unconscious, carefree activity that it was for her neighborhood friends.

As Carrie became an adult, the consequences of the childhood injury lingered. She felt that the injured foot was unreliable and she had to be on guard constantly against falling. One way not to fall, she felt, was to always look down at the ground.

About two months ago Carrie came to me for lessons in the Feldenkrais Method. A massage therapist had recommended me as a person who could help her improve her movement patterns and so reduce her tensions.

In one of our first sessions together I noticed that no matter which way her head moved—up or down—her eyes always looked down. When I asked her to move the eyes up, we were both surprised by how difficult it was. Consequently, I showed her movement sequences that would expand her repertoire in using her vision, as well as improve her balance and coordination overall.

For homework, Carrie worked on observing her natural eye placement during various life activities. Whenever possible, while walking, she would make the effort to keep her eyes on the horizon. It was a challenge! Whenever she came to herself, her eyes were always down, just making sure the ground was still there. When she tried to put them level, she could feel herself tightening in fear. Gradually, though, it became easier and more common for her to have her eyes level, and sometimes up. After a few weeks, she was starting to feeling overall more in balance and more relaxed.

The real test of her new patterns came this past week.

In the course of her work, Carrie was asked to accompany a big client on a tour of a very large printing press. She asked the client if casual clothes were appropriate; he said, no, he would be wearing a suit, and implying that so should she. So Carrie put on a suit and the most stable dress pumps she owned. With thin leather soles, they weren’t stable at all, but she couldn’t see how she could wear a suit with sneakers.

When they got to the press room, the concrete floor was slippery because it was smeared with ink. Every step was an invitation to disaster. This music was playing in her head: "Bye, Bye, Suit. Bye, Bye, Good Impression. Hello, Injury. I think I’m a gonna faa- all."

At every step Carrie wanted to look down to assure her balance, but there was a problem. Little, two-armed robots were zooming around the floor, delivering supplies to the manufacturing line. Since a collision with one of them was not something to look forward to, Carrie had to keep her eyes level and her field of vision wide.

She made it through the first floor tour and was starting to relax. Then her client said, "And now, let me show you the lower level." Her heart leaped to her throat as he led the way to a set of industrial stairs--without a guard rail. For the first two steps, she looked down. She felt awful and thought "Now comes the fall." As a desperate, last resort to stay upright, she tried "looking level." And then came the epiphany. An inner voice said, "My balance is better if I look up!"

Carrie made it down the stairs and through the rest of the tour without incident. She said good-bye with composure and with a warm, professional smile. She arrived home relieved to find suit, body, ego and professional relationship still intact. The shoes, however, were another story. The soles were soaked in ink, and she had to throw them out.