The Body Keeps Score

We know that body works: doing yoga, getting a massage, dancing… bodily movements can wake old trauma.  Suddenly we are back, reliving something we would rather have forgotten.

The first person I knew with PTSD was a fellow student who told how she for a while had been confined to a wheelchair.  She had been in the front passenger seat with her father at the wheel when suddenly the freeway traffic came to a complete stop, and they rear-ended the car in front with great impact.

The doctors could find nothing wrong; the seat belt had done its part.  There was nothing to see on her spine and electrical signals did reach her lower extremities fine – but she couldn’t walk. The legs had locked in the position she had held during the impact:  Pressing her feet against the floor as if she was controlling the brake pedal.

It took a session with a hypnotist, reliving the crash in her memory, to cure the trauma – and yes, she was cured for both the flashbacks and the physical consequences.

I am sure you have heard of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – but have you heard of PEES – Post-Euphoric Eustress Syndrome?

If not, it is probably because I made the term up for this post.

What I don’t make up was how my body and mind felt when I did a yoga class the other morning.  My teacher had come up with a squat routine – and normally squats are not something that makes me laugh out loud.  But we added hand weights, and suddenly my body was back on cross country skis.

I have been skiing since I was two years old.  Granted, there have been times when I absolutely did not enjoy the experience.  When as a kid, tired after having done 10 miles backcountry and still needing to get back to the hotel in subzero temperature and headwinds comes to mind.  Have you ever been so tired that you just wanted to sit down and cry but were too old for that to be the least bit productive?  Well, crying in 0F can’t be recommended, anyway.

My sister and I never had the fanciest gear.  In high school, we went off to Northern Sweden for a week after Christmas with around 30-40 other students and a handful of brave teachers.  We brought our parents’ wooden bear-trap skis and heavy leather boots when many of our friends had the narrow competition skis and light and soft booties.

It turned out that in the Swedish midwinter, solid ski boots and broader skis are actually much better for skiing in conditions where there may not be a prepared run, the wind is howling on mountain tops, and temperatures are frequently around -10F.  We had warm feet when some of the less lucky students were told “As long as your feet hurt, you are fine.  When they stop hurting, we want to hear about it; then you may have frostbite in your toes.”

On one of the last days of the trip, a group of around 10 people was sent out as an advance troop through the forest and to the far side of a big lake; putting down a trail for the others to follow.  Here we dug a hole down to bare ground, wide enough for a fire in the middle and a circle of seats all the way around the pit.  Then we collected firewood.  Realizing that there would not be enough room for all 40+ people around the fire, we took a little extra run for the hour or so it took the main body of our group to have lunch.  We came back as they took off towards “home”, turned our cold sandwiches into Croque Monsieur over the fire – fine use for a ski pole – covered up the hole with the snow so the fire was extinguished and no animals would get burned on hot embers, and then we ventured back as well.

As we reached the middle of the lake, we looked back and realized that we were being followed by a snowstorm.  We couldn’t see the shore we had just left.  Never have I run this fast.  We knew that if we were caught on the lake, we might lose direction and get lost.  Fortunately, we reached the shore just as the storm caught up with us.  We couldn’t see a thing, but as 30 people had been this way recently, the grooves in the snow were deep enough that we could let the skis find their own way back through the forest.  It was dark by the time we reached the hostel where the teachers had dressed up, getting ready to form a search party.

On New Year’s Eve at 11 pm, some of “the usual suspects” put on our skis, headed out into the pitch-dark forest, and a little out we found an open patch where we made a huge circle of deep holes with our ski poles for “sub floor” snow lanterns.  Here we awaited the rest of the students coming out with lighted candles that were put into the holes, and we all sang in the New Year under the starry sky.

All this and more came rushing back to my body as I was swinging my hand weights and doing my squats.  I felt I could have kept going for much longer than my teacher let me.  That is all right.  But I was back the next day; if not for 6 hours, then for many more squats than the day before.  And if I afterwards have a hard time up or down the staircase, that is quite all right as well.  I will take that for the joy my body felt from being back on the mountain…

Bessel van der Kolk: The Body Keeps The Score; Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this experience Charlotte. I loved Bessel’s book, so when I read the title of your post I had to jump in. Our minds are amazing! And I’m grateful you had a PEES moment. While I don’t recall ever having one of those myself, I will admit that I’m going to be more aware of the possibility. So I can sense it if it comes!

    I love imagining you in your zone skiing along. And I love that you got to experience that again.

  2. Charlotte,
    I absolutely LOVE this piece!
    “PEES – Post-Euphoric Eustress Syndrome?” is brilliant and I believe to be a real thing. I was doing yoga on the beach this week and was holding a difficult pose for a long time (as I was gazing at the Atlantic Ocean).
    I had this wave of ‘familiar’ and waves of euphoria that I could not define or explain. I am not sure of the root – but now I am super curious! Thank you for bringing this to light and inviting me to go deeper in my subconscious.

    • Wow, I just love that you could know where I was coming from with this, Carolyn. Just gazing at and listening to the ocean may have brought it on.

      Perhaps we just experienced a “runner’s high” without running?