Harsh environment, changing the cycle of day and night, confinement in confined spaces, lack of privacy, isolation, distancing from loved ones. These are the main stressors experienced by astronauts who spend long periods of time in space. Common factors among those who have struggled with other researchers here on Earth: those working in Antarctica, for example.
In fact, this is precisely the environment chosen for one driving Studio Which researches the development of astronauts’ mental health. Two stations, one on the coast – McMurdo – And an internal one – Amundsen Scott Antarctica. To monitor emotional direction and reveal psychological changes associated with staying in isolated, confined, and extreme environments (so-called icy environments), Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston Candice Alfano And his team put together a mental health checklist (Mhcl). The results have been published in Astronautics Law.
Participants 110–22 at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and 88 at McMurdo Station, ages 22 to 70 – completed a monthly assessment questionnaire and underwent further testing to assess changes in physical complaints. Biomarkers of stress – such as cortisol – and the use of various strategies to regulate emotions. The observation lasted for nine months, including the Antarctic winter – during which the sun did not shine for 3 consecutive months, from May to August.
The psychoanalysis provided to the participants was the same in the two stations, but the authors maintain that there are fundamental differences between them. At McMurdo’s coastal base, departures and arrivals are possible even during the winter months. It is the most populous base in Antarctica – it hosts around 1,000 people during the summer and 250 in the winter – and temperatures, although severe, are a little less temperate on the inside: the average is -3 ° C in summer and -27 ° C. C in the winter. On the other hand, Antarctica is difficult to reach and remains completely inaccessible during the winter months – as is the case for the Italian-French base Concordia, For example. It accommodates a maximum of 150 people during the summer and a maximum of 50 persons during the winter season. Temperatures are also cooler: they range from -28 ° C on average in summer to -60 ° C in winter.
In addition to small crews and limited communication during the winter months, the Antarctic environment provides little sensory stimulation and long periods of darkness. Moreover, despite the unlimited spaces available, the weather conditions limit outdoor activities. Escape is difficult if not impossible, especially in Antarctica. For this reason, to be admitted here – unlike Sahel – researchers must pass some psychological exams. Even astronauts are subject to very precise selection methods, but even the most competent and highly skilled individuals are susceptible to adjustment problems in harsh environments. Moreover, in the case of astronauts, microgravity, contact delay and the near-absence of diversity in environmental stimuli add to the previously mentioned stress factors. Moreover, in the case of space, very long missions – such as those that could take humans to Mars – are unprecedented and will greatly increase the exposure of astronauts to extreme stress conditions, with unexpected results today.
“We observed significant changes in psychological functioning, but trends regarding certain aspects of mental health differed from one another. The most obvious changes were observed for positive emotions, so much so that we saw a continuous decline from beginning to end of the task, with no evidence of a ‘rebound effect’ when Participants were preparing to go home. ”Alfano reports. Previous research, both in space and in polar environments, has focused almost exclusively on negative emotional states, including anxiety and symptoms of depression. But positive emotions such as contentment, enthusiasm, and amazement are essential characteristics to thrive in environments In which one is always under pressure. ”
Negative feelings also increased over the course of the study, but the changes were more varied and often accompanied by physical disturbances. Overall, the results indicate that while changes in negative feelings depend on individual, personal, and situational factors and are interconnected with them, declines in positive feelings are a more holistic experience in ice environments.
The study results also revealed that participants tended to use less effective strategies to regulate (i.e. increase) their positive feelings as their stay at the stations progressed.
“Both the ability to taste – to observe, appreciate, engage, and intentionally intensify positive experiences and emotions – and reassess – that is, change the way one thinks about a situation – decreased during the mission months compared to the starting conditions,” Alfano explains. These changes may help explain the observed decline in Positive emotions over time.
The overall conclusion, according to the authors, is that interventions and countermeasures aimed at improving and strengthening positive emotions can be fundamental to reducing psychological risks during prolonged exposure to harsh environments. Finally, clear differences emerged between the two stations: paradoxically, the psychological effect among McMurdo residents in some aspects – such as anxiety level and cortisol production – was revealed to be more severe than observed among colleagues by the South. pole. The most compelling and satisfying explanation for this seemingly paradoxical finding is that the psychological choice of individuals is fundamental to ensuring personal well-being and mission.
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