Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness—or DOMS—happens when you stress a muscle beyond its normal usage and it results in muscle soreness after a period of rest, most commonly the next day. This could happen if you’re out hiking or biking when it’s been a while, or maybe from that first round of intense gardening in the spring. While you might not have realized there was a term for it, you’ve likely experienced DOMS at some point in your life and could easily point to the activity that led to it.
We recently went on a family hike that well-exceeded any hike we’d done together since early in my pregnancy with my oldest daughter, tackling a steep and grueling seven miles while carrying 30-pound packs. I knew before we’d made it back to the parking area that I was going to be sore for a few days. Even rolling out of bed the next morning contained an unusual level of difficulty, but I smiled a bit as I did; there’s something about being sore from physically exerting myself that is satisfying and I secretly love it.
As walked stiffly across my room, I had flashes of other memorable moments in my life where I contended with DOMS and my smile faded with one particular memory.
I was in my teens and having a sleepover at my best friend’s house. We’d eaten dinner and she, her younger sister, and I decided to watch a movie. Just as we were settling in, their dad decided to join us and plopped down between the girls. My friend and her sister snuggled up with him to get comfortable while I sat rigidly at the far edge of the sofa. The movie started, but I was only watching them; sometimes directly facing them and sometimes focused on my peripheral as I faced the television I continued to ignore.
I wanted what they had SO BADLY.
I wanted a dad I could snuggle with for some screen time, a dad who was there for me and cared about me. A dad who wanted to spend time with me enough that he would want to watch a stupid movie with me.
I think he noticed, and after a while, he stretched out an arm that had been wrapped around my friend and invited me to scoot over and join them. God, I was so torn about what to do. That kind of an offer felt like a lifetime of Christmases rolled into a single, simple gesture.
I hesitated, though, because I also didn’t know what it was like to be close to a man—any man, even my best friend’s dad who’d also been my soccer coach for years—with even a low level of comfort. I couldn’t remember a time I’d been comfortable like that with my own father. I had no memories of ever being comfortable around any other adult man, the formative experiences that had shaped my comfort level filled with differing kinds of abuse.
But my intense desire for even a taste of what they had overrode my hesitation and I scooted over, mashing myself up against my friend as her dad wrapped his arm around my back and grasped my shoulder with his hand the way he had been doing with my friend until he’d invited me to join them. He turned back to the television and the rest of the movie passed in a fashion that was perfectly normal for their family.
I can’t tell you what the movie was and I didn’t see even a single scene from it. I spent the duration staring into nothingness with tunnel vision as my heart beat out of my chest and I felt sick to my stomach. I was hyperaware of where my friend’s dad was touching me, my skin under my t-shirt on fire. I noticed every tiny movement when he or my friend laughed or shifted in their seats. I wanted so badly to enjoy the movie but simultaneously couldn’t wait for it to end.
I was extremely uncomfortable yet too embarrassed and ashamed about feeling that way to say anything or move away.
The rest of the night and the next day are fuzzy in my memory. But after I’d gone home the following day, I experienced one of the worst cases of DOMS that I’ve ever had. From the muscles in the side of my neck to those in my back, all the way to my calves, my entire body ached painfully. My head pounded like I had a severe hangover and I was truly, utterly exhausted.
Believe it or not, I didn’t realize then what was wrong with me. I thought I had mono or was getting a bad case of the flu or something like that. It wasn’t until later that I realized what had caused the soreness and feelings of illness.
Healing and processing trauma is often like this, even if you aren’t physically sore from your encounter. You are suddenly short-tempered, or your anxiety is ramped up, or you’re having an increase in the frequency of your panic attacks or flashbacks. You’re feeling angry or you can’t sleep. Or something else. But there’s a change in you, and you think you’re in a funk because you can’t identify a trigger immediately before the change occurred.
Sometimes, that trigger takes a while to impact you. Maybe a few days or even weeks. There’s no rule book for how healing works or timeline for processing trauma or experiencing its effects. If there isn’t an identifiable inciting incident, you’re likely not looking back far enough in time.
Maybe nothing happened today or yesterday, but two weeks ago you thought you saw your abuser in a store. Or you heard the song that played in the background when you were touched against your will. Or it was Father’s Day and you haven’t seen your father since you were a child.
But rest assured, there was something; you’re not just “in a funk” and there’s nothing wrong with you because it seemed so sudden. Sometimes it simply takes a few days or weeks for our internal processing of the trigger to manifest in a conscious manner. And then it may take days or weeks to recover, just like recovering from extreme physical exertion. And that’s okay; it’s simply a signal that you need to provide a little extra care for yourself, to slow down and allow healing to occur.
Think of it as a kind of emotional DOMS.
Katherine Turner is the author of Finding Annie, a contemporary romantic women’s fiction novel that explores the power of love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie free!