As we trip over curbs, splash ladles full of salad dressing on ourselves at the salad bar or drop our phones (preferably not in the toilet), we roll our eyes and ask no one in particular, “Why am I such a klutz?”
Although being clumsy or a klutz (“klutz” is an American Yiddish term for a blockhead or clumsy dolt) can seem like a chronic condition, it isn’t exactly a medical term, notes UCLA School of Medicine neuropsychiatrist Jeff Schwartz, M.D., co-author of “You Are Not Your Brain."
That said, in some cases, clumsiness can be a sign of a serious health condition that affects coordination.
“Ataxia is an umbrella term describing problems with balance and coordination,” explains Liz Werner, Outreach Coordinator for the National Ataxia Foundation. “There are a variety of diseases and conditions in which ataxia is a symptom, including MS [multiple sclerosis], stroke, head trauma, brain tumors, severe viral infections and immune system problems.”
But not all causes of clumsiness are so serious.
Mindfulness Over Matter
So if a medical cause—or, say, being intoxicated—isn’t to blame for tripping over your own feet, you may be able to chalk up your klutziness to a lack of mindfulness.
“I sometimes feel as though I'm walking the streets like a zombie, I'm so preoccupied,” says Christa Kindred, 34, who works at a political consulting firm in New York City. She blames job stress. Her list of slips, trips and sprained ankles is long. Her scariest moment, she says, involved jaywalking and tripping under an oncoming car. “Thank god the driver saw me in time, but just barely,” she says.
Model Brittany Dunlop, 26, can relate. The former competitive gymnast self-identifies as clumsy. “I think I walk better on my hands than my feet,” she says, showing off bruises from bumping into a table and a clothing rack. “I was never clumsy while competing or training, but in my everyday life I fall or bump into things all the time. It’s like I’m not paying attention to basic things like walking or climbing stairs. The harder something is [like gymnastics], the more it forces me to concentrate.”
It’s no wonder that many of us struggle with mindfulness. The practice of being intentionally and non-judgmentally focused on the present is a tall order in today’s multi-tasking, fast-paced world, but mindfulness’ ability to help quell clumsiness may be worth it. “When we are present, we are more intentional—we think about what we are going to do and pay attention while we are doing it rather then being on automatic pilot or having a clumsy incident due to lack of attentiveness,” says Maria Lynn Fanelli, who oversees the Penn Program for Mindfulness at the University of Pennsylvania Health System. “Cultivating mindfulness can decrease clumsy incidents.”
Mindfulness also lowers stress and anxiety. “Think back to a time when you wanted to perform well but were nervous,” says Fanelli. “Chances are it wasn’t your best performance either. As we are able to let go of our fear, worry or nervousness and focus on the present moment—which is what mindfulness helps to cultivate—our body is less tense and we tend to perform better at our task.” She recommends taking a mindfulness class since the practice requires, well, practice.
Stumbling Out of Bed
Sleep deprivation could also (literally) be tripping you up. “[It] makes you clumsy and unhealthy,” says James Maas, Ph.D., YouBeauty’s Sleep Expert. “Reaction time is slowed, motor skills suffer and cognitive awareness is dulled. You are also more accident-prone.” Case in point, per Dr. Maas: There is a “significant” uptick in car accidents the week after we change our clocks to daylight savings time in the spring, which causes us to lose an hour of slumber.
In addition to nabbing more sleep and becoming more mindful to avoid embarrassing stumbles and falls, you can also reprogram your brain, according to Dr. Schwartz. His theory is that you can develop the habit of believing that you are clumsy and thus create a “so-called clumsy brain.” Try his four-step system to retrain your brain and become more graceful:
1) Re-label. “Say, ‘this is not me. I am not clumsy. These are false beliefs. I can change this,’” suggests Dr. Schwartz.
2) Re-frame. Tell yourself that your brain is sending you a deceptive message about being clumsy.
3) Re-focus. Try exercises that show you what your body is capable of. “Take ballet, modern dance, Pilates, yoga or Zumba,” he suggests.
4) Re-value. “When you feel clumsy, you can say, ‘this is why I’ve been practicing Zumba. Because I’m not clumsy. I’m a person in the process of becoming graceful.’”
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