When I learned to ski five years ago, both my general anxiety and experienced friends kept my brain occupied with terrifying scenarios: surprise cliffs, yard sales, boarding the chairlift alongside a first-time snowboarder.
I did not anticipate hurling at the lift line.
I’ve been prone to motion sickness since middle school. It always happens when I’m not the one controlling the movement, like sitting in a car or bobbing on a kayak. In the backseat of a carpool to Taos, New Mexico last year, I got queasier with each turn—because of the drive and anticipation. But it would be fine once we got some fresh air and I was the one doing the steering! I thought.
But as I booted up, made shaky turns, and paused at the bottom of each run, I felt like the snow before me was still somehow moving. On the lift, I held back dry heaves while my friend ate a quesadilla next to me. And finally, at a regrettably busy lift line, I turned and let my breakfast burrito exit my body in a beautiful projectile that landed neatly between my skis. Still, I tried to rally a few times before realizing it was the skiing, not my dearly departed burrito, making my stomach turn.
There’s an explanation for what I was dealing with: Häusler’s disease, coined exactly for the experience of skiing in bad lighting conditions and getting really, really dizzy. Apparently, it’s the skier’s brand of motion sickness. It starts with the inner ear, a snail-shaped bundle of systems that assist with balance and communicating sound to the brain. Motion sickness generally happens when your inner ears detect one kind of motion and your eyes detect another, says Carol A. Foster, M.D., associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Colorado.
Continuous movement, like waves, makes that confusion worse, because your inner ears are more stimulated. If you’re not seeing a lot of movement on top of that, get the barf bags out. “You can make almost anyone get motion sick if you expose them to the right sorts of motion,” Foster says. “But there are some people who are much more resistant than others.”
These things all compound in Colorado, where a typical winter weekend involves winding roads, lower-oxygen levels, and sliding downhill fast in all kinds of conditions, Foster says. “You are more at risk when you’re here.”
After all, skiing in bad light or a whiteout ticks all the boxes: constant movement, few visual cues, and being at a higher altitude. Focusing on something stable, like the horizon when you’re on a boat, might help. But that’s not an option on snowy or foggy days when you can barely see. High-contrast ski goggles can be beneficial on flat-light days, but Foster says when visual conditions are really bad, the only thing that’ll truly help is to stop skiing. “For people who can ski with their eyes closed, it doesn’t matter,” she jokes. “But those of us who require vision to ski, flat light—it’s bad.”
I require vision to ski, and just when I’d started feeling more confident on the snow, my vestibular system of all things was sabotaging me. And I felt ridiculous because none of my friends seemed to have any trouble with ski-sickness. But I’m perfectly normal, Foster assures me. Actually, about 10 percent of people are very susceptible to motion sickness. “The better your ears,” she says, “the more likely you are [to get motion-sick] because you feel motion more.
So, what can someone like me do about it? The first step is acceptance: pay attention to how you feel on good- versus bad-light days, and consider that a wobbly stomach may not just be altitude sickness or those beers you had last night. If you’re more prone to motion sickness, prevention and awareness are key. Meclizine, found in seasickness drugs like Dramamine and Bonine, is mild enough to use on a regular basis, but it will make you drowsy. Still, Foster knows people who are perfectly happy to take it before getting on the ski hill. If you don’t want to medicate, invest in high-contrast lenses you can switch out and don’t force yourself to keep going when visibility deteriorates. Those are the most expert-approved options, but Foster says people find all kinds of alternative fixes that seem to work for them—me included.
One day this summer, I remembered that my grandma always wore weird little bracelets called Sea-Bands to counteract seasickness. One Google search and $12 later, a tiny plastic box arrived on my doorstep holding two fabric wristbands, each about as big as a fun-size candy bar and fitted with an M&M-shaped piece of plastic in the middle. These admittedly geriatric-looking accessories are to be worn on both arms, dots pressing on the inner wrists. They’re called acupressure bands, and they’re supposed to engage an acupuncture point between the two tendons of the wrist that is thought to relieve nausea and balance issues.
It’s hard to explain the exact mechanism that make acupressure bands work, and the benefits have not been strenuously tested. (Some studies have supported the idea that acupressure bands seem to have some effect in certain cases.) But my sweet little Sea-Bands have changed my life. The first time I wore them, on a two-hour car ride on mountain roads, I felt like I could stand on my head while doing donuts and reading The Odyssey with not one twinge of queasiness. Foster notes the workings of acupressure bands are not totally clear—and the benefit might just be a placebo effect.
I was raised with a dose of alternative medicine passed down from my mom and grandma, so I am down for acupressure. But even if it is just the placebo effect, I’ll take it. In fact, I suspect I’m more susceptible to it; having a non-invasive but concrete intervention has always calmed my anxious brain. I had spontaneous and violent bloody noses for years as a kid, and my grandma gave me a necklace that she said I should wear whenever I felt one coming on: a tiny jade teapot on a red string. This was definitely a kindness more than any medical belief, but the nosebleeds started to feel shorter. Within a year, they’d stopped altogether. Motion sickness feels similar in that it’s impossible to control, as if my brain is one step behind my body (and it kind of is!). Like putting on the necklace, maybe donning my Sea-Bands and feeling the pressure on my wrists grounds me enough to get a grip on things.
And that’s what I’ll keep telling myself as ski season starts. I wore them for my first uphill skin of the season on a foggy day, and though I gritted my teeth on the way down anticipating that this would be where the placebo effect faded—not so! I’ll continue to proudly slip on my dorky little Sea-Bands for every carpool, and I’ll enter every lift line in peace, dammit.
I have a professional otolaryngologist supporting that plan. “You know the old cartoon Dumbo, holding the feather?” Foster asks. Dumbo always thought it was the feather that helped him fly, when it was something else (his ears) all along. “Well, is having a Sea-Band just holding a feather that you really believe in? My view is, if all you need is a little placebo effect, then that’s great.”