Antarctic researchers enter a state of 'psychological hibernation,' study finds

December 4, 2018, University of Manchester
Credit: University of Manchester

Antarctic researchers enter a state of 'psychological hibernation' to cope with the stresses of constant darkness, isolation and confinement, according to a new study.

Spending long periods of time in isolation and confinement in any environment has been shown to cause negative psychological reactions and changes in health. Station personnel in Antarctica have reported a variety of issues, ranging from disrupted mood and anxiety to more severe psychiatric reactions. These changes are particularly pronounced during the midwinter period, and have come to reflect symptoms known as the '-over syndrome'.

With the support of the European Space Agency, researchers from The University of Manchester, University of Bergen in Norway and Tilburg University in The Netherlands examined the change in sleep quality, emotions and during two winters in the harsh atmosphere of Concordia Station. The area has the driest desert climate on Earth, and a low air pressure and oxygen-poor atmosphere. It is completely cut off during winter, the mean temperature is -51°C, and the lowest recorded temperature is -85°C.

Using psychometric questionnaires, the researchers asked personnel to report on their sleep, emotional states and coping strategies across the winter. They found a pattern of deteriorating sleep quality and declining positive emotions as the winter progressed, which then recovered as the sun returned.

However, they also found that all of the coping strategies assessed declined during the winter period, and then returned after the dark winter phase had passed. This surprised the researchers, who had thought that active coping efforts – such as problem-solving and comforting self talk—would decrease, and more passive coping efforts—such as denial and depressive reactions—would increase in midwinter when personnel were truly cut off.

It is also important to note that Antarctic station infrastructure has developed, and personnel now live in relative comfort during their stay—this is very different to earlier studies, where the risk of exposure was higher and the resources available to mitigate stress were more limited. As a result, the mechanisms that individuals use to deal with stress during long duration confinement in these isolated but more comfortable habitats is likely to reflect the conditions people find themselves in.

Overall, the research raises many questions as to how people maintain their health and cope with the environmental demands whilst living in these types of isolated and confined conditions.

The findings have implications for people spending long amounts of time in isolated and confined conditions, particularly at . Antarctic studies have been viewed as comparable to spaceflight—so this research could also contribute to understanding how to keep astronauts well during long space missions.

"Our findings could reflect a form of psychological hibernation. Previous research has suggested that this is a protective mechanism against , which makes sense—if conditions are uncontrollable, but you know that at some point in the future things will get better, you may choose to reduce coping efforts in order to preserve energy." says Dr. Nathan Smith of the University of Manchester.

"Historically, this will have been dangerous—while in this state you may be slow to react to changing conditions, which in extreme cold weather environments could result in serious injury or death. However, Antarctic stations are much more habitable nowadays, and provide high levels of protection against the elements—so detaching from chronic stress as a coping mechanism could be effective."

Explore further: Eyes on ice – medical research from Antarctica

More information: Gro Mjeldheim Sandal et al. Psychological Hibernation in Antarctica, Frontiers in Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.02235

Related Stories

Eyes on ice – medical research from Antarctica

November 5, 2018
Results from a medical research study at British Antarctic Survey's Halley Research Station – "Impact of long-term daylight deprivation on retinal light sensitivity, circadian rhythms and sleep during the Antarctic winter" ...

African-American women stress compounded

July 12, 2011
Using incense or lighting a candle may seem like good ways to let go of racial stress, but a recent study found that might not be the case in terms of racial tension among women. In fact, some coping strategies employed by ...

Recommended for you

The richer the reward, the faster you'll likely move to reach it, study shows

December 11, 2018
If you are wondering how long you personally are willing to stand in line to buy that hot new holiday gift, scientists at Johns Hopkins Medicine say the answer may be found in the biological rules governing how animals typically ...

Receiving genetic information can change risk

December 11, 2018
Millions of people in the United States alone have submitted their DNA for analysis and received information that not only predicts their risk for disease but, it turns out, in some cases might also have influenced that risk, ...

Using neurofeedback to prevent PTSD in soldiers

December 11, 2018
A team of researchers from Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. has found that using neurofeedback could prevent soldiers from experiencing PTSD after engaging in emotionally difficult situations. In their paper published in the ...

You make decisions quicker and based on less information than you think

December 11, 2018
We live in an age of information. In theory, we can learn everything about anyone or anything at the touch of a button. All this information should allow us to make super-informed, data-driven decisions all the time.

These bacteria may be the key to treating clinical depression

December 11, 2018
We like to think of ourselves as individuals.

Meditation adapts the brain to respond better to feedback

December 11, 2018
In a new study in the Journal of Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience researchers from the University of Surrey have discovered a link between meditation and how individuals respond to feedback.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Dec 05, 2018
Greetings!!! I am grateful to Dr Larry for curing my Herpes Simplex disease, And i have been living with this disease for 5years and i have taken lot of Root and herbs and Drugs but none were able to cure me, Until i saw a comment on a page where someone testify about this great herbalist and i check his website and i was grateful that he truly cure disease, I am free from my Herpes simplex virus. After contacting Dr Larry in less than 5 days i received my medicine and when i use it for only 21 days i was cured permanently, Contact Dr Larry and find your own cure. I was told he Cures different kind of disease, HIV AIDS, HEPATITIS B, CANCER, DIABETES And many more WhatSApp: +1(424)-261-8520

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.