The term gravitational insecurity refers to the inability of a child to comfortably process shifts in the position of his or her head in relation to the ground. For example, a child on a swing might experience a scary falling sensation as the swing moves forward or backwards, and with each change of direction, that may result feelings of instability and even panic.
What are the Origins of Gravitational Insecurity in Children?
Gravitational insecurity may be traced to oversensitivity of the vestibular apparatus, the cluster of sensory organs located in the inner ear that allow the brain to respond to changes in gravity. This vestibular apparatus helps the brain process motion, equilibrium, and spatial orientation to regulate balance, and the sense of the body in space. When the head and body move through space, the vestibular apparatus tells the brain which was is down, which direction the body may be moving, and how fast.
Consequently, when their feet leave the ground, a child with gravitational insecurity may lose their point of reference, and become unable to process their own body position, or recognize whether they are moving or still. This can happen when an adult lifts them into the air, jumping into a swimming pool, riding an elevator or escalator, climbing stairs or simply standing or walking on an uneven surface that puts the head at an angle to level ground.
Staying Balanced With Gravitational Insecurity
Another way to explain what gravitational insecurity is would be simply to compare it to the sense of panic anyone might experience with a sudden loss of balance. Say, for example, someone were to slip on a banana peel. As the feet slip forward and the head tilts backwards, the otolith organs floating within the inner ear send signals to the vestibular apparatus that the head is moving in an unexpected way, and that the feet are not planted on the ground to stop it.
Such a person may experience a moment akin to gravitational insecurity. However, that moment is rare and fleeting, because the majority of the time the brain will quickly be able to process the body's movement and position, and anticipate the outcome of the movement. For a child with gravitational insecurity, however, these moments may occur frequently, and for an extended duration.
What Does Gravitiational Insecurity Present Itself as in Children?
Gravitational insecurity may present as fear of heights, feelings of panic while on playground equipment, or being lifted into the air, trying to do a somersault, or even moments of anxiety when sitting in a reclined chair.
How to Help Children With Gravitational Insecurity
While gravitational insecurity may inhibit a child's enjoyment of running, riding, and jumping games, occupational therapy may help overcome the condition by training the vestibular apparatus to better process signals from the otolith organs. By using a method called Sensory Integration Therapy, an occupational therapist may employ incremental sensory changes to help the child experience movements gradually, without feeling overwhelmed.