Can't go on a long car ride without feeling queasy? Don't worry -- you're not a wimp if you get green in the gills in the minivan. Even astronauts (up to 50 percent of them!) get airsick. And as it turns out, whether your summer travel plans include a cross-country flight or the boats at "It's a Small World," an unlikely source might help ease your motion sickness: NASA.
"Motion sickness won't kill you -- you just wish it would," says Dr. Patricia S. Cowings, a research psychologist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. Cowings and colleague Dr. William B. Toscano have a six-hour anti-motion sickness training program called AFTE for autogenic-feedback training exercise. It works even better than the anti-nausea injections given to queasy astronauts.
Turns out, there are plenty of recorded cases of spewing in space, and perhaps the most infamous of them all happened in 1969. All three Apollo 9 crewmembers had nausea, in particular Rusty Schweickart, who still managed to go out in a spacesuit after repeated episodes of vomiting. That's when NASA began to take the issue seriously, and the agency now actively studies ways to reduce motion sickness.
AFTE trains them to control the nausea by controlling body functions like sweating and increased heart rate. These are usually involuntary, but we can learn to control them with biofeedback training. Sure, you can change your pulse by running around and then stopping, but AFTE trains you to mentally ramp up and bring down your physiological responses.
"We don't teach relaxation," says Cowings, "we teach control. It improves with practice, like any other skill."
The astronauts get real-time, high-tech feedback about things like skin conductance to measure sweating, and how much blood their heart is pumping. But even those of us who aren't spacebound can use AFTE ideas. If you're nauseated, Cowings says, "Get your breathing smooth and even, with two seconds of inhalation and two seconds of exhalation. Breathe from low in your abdomen and keep that up as long as you can." She says to relax your arms and legs and think about getting your hands warmer, to increase blood flow.
Common sense says that opening the window for some fresh air, and looking at the horizon instead of down at a book or Nintendo DS makes car trips more tolerable. Some studies suggest ginger reduces nausea. Of course, you can always knock yourself out with a pill like Dramamine or Bonine, if you don't mind drowsiness. But AFTE has no side effects, says Cowings, and "it lasts forever, once you learn."
Do you struggle with motion sickness now, or did you as a child? Tell us about your worst experiences in the comments.