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Senior Correspondent

Q. I am 83 years old and I am very afraid of falling down stairs. My mother broke her hip that way, and I think of her every time I am on stairs.

If you think about falling while you are on a staircase, you increase the risk of falling. You have to learn how to redirect your attention away from your troubling thoughts and let your body take you up and down the stairs.

The techniques used to block out your worries and act naturally are taught by Zen masters and sports psychologists. The basic concept is this: distract yourself with anything benign so that your worries cannot creep into your consciousness.

Here's an example:

Many years ago, I read a book, "The Inner Game of Golf" by W. Timothy Gallwey. The author employed Zen techniques to allow golfers to use their skills to hit the ball instead of thinking their way through shots. I tried his techniques and immediately improved my game. I was amazed but not convinced. Then I had an experience that proved to me that these Zen techniques worked. 

Gallwey recommends replacing your controlling thoughts with mantras — words or sounds you can repeat in your head to keep your worries out of your way. My two mantras were “club back” and then “hit.” That's all I thought about as I went through my swing.

One afternoon, I found myself in a fairway bunker about 120 yards from the green. The ball was partially submerged in the sand. I had only a vague idea of how to hit this shot to the green. I stepped into the sand with a 7-iron. I focused on my mantras and swung thoughtlessly at the ball. It landed 10 feet from the hole.

You can use the same technique when you are on the stairs. Choose a mantra and repeat it until you are back on a flat floor. Just counting the stairs as you traverse them might work. But a recent study suggested a novel method — clenching your left hand before you go to the stairs. This seems to work for right-handers only. About 90 percent of us are right-handed.

For the study, German researchers tested the skills of athletes. Right-handed athletes who squeezed a ball in their left hand before competition were less likely to choke under pressure than right-handed players who squeezed a ball in their right hand.

Reasoning is associated with the left hemisphere, while the right hemisphere is linked with automatic body movements.

Juergen Beckmann, chairman of sports psychology at the Technical University of Munich, and the lead researcher, theorized that squeezing a ball or clenching the left hand would activate the brain's right hemisphere and reduce the risk of an athlete choking under pressure. 

"Many movements of the body can be impaired by attempts at consciously controlling them," Beckmann said. "This technique can be helpful for many situations and tasks."

Sian Beilock, a psychologist and author of "Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Success and Failure at Work and at Play," also recommends distracting the mind with meaningless details or speeding up movements so the brain doesn’t have time to overthink. She also recommends writing down your worries.

There is work in clinical psychology showing that writing helps limit negative thoughts that are very hard to shake and that seem to grow the more you dwell on them. The idea is that you cognitively outsource your worries to the page.

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