Inauguration-induced landsickness: what you feel when the shaky world beneath your feet suddenly stabilizes, and how to feel better

For the past few days I, like many of you, have felt a variety of intense emotions. First and foremost I’ve felt an overwhelming sense of relief. No matter what happens next, Donald Trump is no longer President of the United States, and he and his enablers can no longer work to destroy so much of what we love and value (at least not as easily). We can start the hard work of fixing so many things that have been awful and growing worse every day. I’ve felt hope that we can start to make things better, and I’ve even felt a little bit of joy at the noteworthy progress that’s already been made. All of this was expected, but one thing I haven’t expected is how much of a particular sensation I’m feeling, and have seen other people report feeling as well. For some of my friends it was a totally unfamiliar sensation, but as a marine scientist I recognized it immediately: many of us are basically experiencing landsickness, also called “dock rock” or “mal de debarquement syndrome”.

Landsickness is essentially reverse seasickness. Instead of feeling nauseuous and disoriented and exhausted when on a boat in rough seas, I feel that way once I return to dry (and stable) land. I have been known to get really bad cases of this after long trips at sea. I can’t come close to walking in a straight line, and I often have to sit or lie down suddenly to avoid falling. Once when driving home after a research cruise I had to pull over my car on the side of the highway and lie down on the concrete shoulder for half an hour. It can last for days (and in some severe cases much longer). It sucks, and like seasickness, if someone hasn’t experienced it themselves, they have no idea what the heck is wrong with you or why you’re complaining so much.

So what does landsickness have to do with the way I am feeling at end of the Trump era? You’ve probably heard of sea legs, a metaphor for someone who adapts to the motion of a ship at sea enough to keep their balance, avoid getting sick, and help out with shipboard tasks. Basically, when I get my sea legs, it means I have gotten used to the unfamiliar and stressful environment of my entire world being unstable, and have learned to focus and get work done despite the ground beneath my feet moving all the time. Landsickness occurs when I am adjusted to such an unstable world, try to use those adjusments once I get back on solid ground, and find they don’t help anymore.

Well, we’ve all spent the last four years trying to function when our world is constantly falling out from under us, trying to adapt as best we can so we can go about our days as the ground beneath our feet moves dramatically and unexpectedly. I’ve basically spent years developing another set of sea legs, because I’ve needed to use them every day. And now I find that the adaptation I’ve needed to get through my days for four years isn’t needed anymore. Not only is that hard-won adaptation suddenly unnecessary, but using it overcorrects relative to my new reality so much that I feel disoriented and exhausted.

So if you, like me, have been experiencing these strange feelings the last few days, you may be wondering what to do about it. While noting again that I’m not that kind of doctor, the advice I’ve long been given for recovering from my landsickness is simple: take it easy, rest, and give my body time to adjust to the new reality it’s suddenly experiencing. In a few days, I’ll be able to walk normally on dry stable land again, and because my body subconsciously saved energy to use to keep my balance, I’ll find that I have a lot more energy than I had when I had to use my sea legs. Which is great, because we’re going to need that energy to help fix all that’s been broken.

One comment

  1. Christi Smith · January 23, 2021

    What a poetic way to capture the mood of the nation. As someone all too familiar with land sickness- nearly broke my wrist from a shower fall—I love this analogy.

    Cheers, be well!

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