Dealing with Trauma Can Be A Lot Like Developing Sea Legs

a stormy harbor with lots of boats and a pink sky that's reflecting on the water
Image by Damian Gadal / CC BY

If you’ve ever spent any time traveling by boat, you know all about the importance of developing sea legs.

Especially when moving over the choppier waters of a stormy sea or ocean, it can be difficult at first to walk steadily on the deck of a ship. This is particularly the case if you’ve never done it before.

The first time I was ever at sea, sailing up the coast of Alaska, I felt very much like a tiny insect clinging to a large creature that was trying its best to throw me off its back.

The initial 12 hours of the voyage, I felt mildly seasick. I’d gone in expecting that this could happen and came prepared with drugs to treat it if it got too bad. But thankfully it never quite got there. My seasickness stayed fairly low grade, and by the time I woke up the second morning aboard the ship, I was no longer sick.

But while the sea sicknesses didn’t last too long, it did take me a bit longer to get proper sea legs. To get to the point where the motion of the ocean was more expected and even soothing — rather than scary or unpredictable. That part of the adaptation process was more gradual; it took a while before I really trusted myself to walk steadily.

By the fourth night, however, I was wearing high heels to dinner aboard the ship with confidence. My sea legs had come in!

I noticed something curious, however, once the week was up and I returned to dry land again: I felt like the ground was moving when it wasn’t.

It seemed that my vestibular system (the structures of the inner ear that help regulate our sense of balance) was continuing to make adjustments as though I were still at sea.

And I found that it wasn’t until a few days of being on dry land that the illusion of motion faded away.

Just Like Riding a Bike?

I recently returned to sea to vacation in Mexico  and was struck by a few things:

  1. This time around I adjusted much more quickly to the shimmy-shake of the high seas. Research has demonstrated that seasoned mariners will increase their stance width to compensate for ship motion. It’s also been found in other studies that novices will do the same, but it does take some time (a day or two, on average) for them to do so.  It would seem that my previous experience prepared me to quickly adapt, even without any conscious effort (it reminds me of procedural memory, “it’s as easy as riding a bike,” etc.).
  2. Even before I completely adjusted, I found the motion generally less alarming. And I didn’t feel seasick at all. Not even a little bit.
  3. It did still take some time once back on dry land for my brain to stop thinking the ground was moving. That seemed to move on roughly about the same schedule as the first time I’d sailed, so it seemed like my prior experience didn’t help so much with that half of things.

Okay, Sea Legs, Work’s Over, Please Go Home

When I finally arrived back in Cleveland at 1 am (the plane I took home ended up sitting on the runway for over an hour in Texas due to a mix-up related to refueling and the logbook that required mechanics to consult on the issue), I was starving. I’d last eaten at 11 am the previous day, having only about a half hour to catch my connecting flight.

I was also exhausted. But beyond hungry. And faced with a fridge whose contents didn’t make an awful lot of sense, as I’d wanted to let things run low so food wouldn’t spoil while I was away on vacation.

So it was time for a late night/early morning grocery run. As I speed walked around the store grabbing snacks, I found myself become progressively more and more irritated by the illusion that the ground was moving.

Cmon, I thought to myself. This is so obnoxious. So dumb. You’re on dry land now.

But it didn’t matter. My body was going to adjust on its own schedule, not mine.

You, Too, Anxiety

“You know,” I said to my companion, who was experiencing the same phenomenon. “This is really stupid.”

“Your body just takes time to adjust,” he replied.

“I know,” I said. “It’s just frustrating.” And then it hit me. “You know what it reminds me of?”

“What’s that?”

“Anxiety disorders that result from a history of trauma and abuse,” I said. “Something bad happens to you. And especially if it happens over and over again, and you’re in a situation where you can’t escape from it, you just have to learn to adjust to it. Like you learn to adjust to a swaying boat.”

He nodded.

“And then, even later on, when you’re safe — or when you’re on dry land — you still can’t relax. You still keep adjusting for threats and stress that aren’t there,” I continued. “Conditioned anxiety can be a lot like emotional sea legs, an illusion of motion that just won’t go away. A re-calibration to your emotional systems, where your body’s intention is to be helpful but instead is making you sick. Making your life harder.”

We drove home, ate our snacks. They were delicious. Finally, with a full belly, exhaustion became the more pressing need, and I was finally able to crash.

It felt so good to sleep in my own bed again.

In a few days, the ground stopped feeling like it was moving under me.

If only anxiety disappeared that quickly.


This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.


Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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1 Comment

  1. I have PTSD resulting from bad medical traumatic experience. A couple of them. What’s weird is that when faced with any experience that triggers my flight and fight response my body remembers the pain. I can hear the sounds, smell the smells and vividly my body feels the fear and intense pain.

    Yes, That learned reaction is like riding a bike. Only I don’t want to ride it and it still it comes. I have my coping tools. I call them my ‘stupid party tricks’ And yet even after a year of EMDR I am only managing the episodes. Weird how I have learned to appear calm and collected while there is a storm raging on the inside.

    Makes me wish I have an unlearn button so it could all go away. But then I would forget all the great things I’ve learned here. So hang in there and keep writing. You’ve helped me out more than you could ever know.

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