Friday, February 13, 2015

The mental/emotional effects of isolation

An article by Felicity Aston, the first woman to ski cross-country across the Antarctic continent, completely alone. She talks about her experience of isolation, and how her experience might compare to what future astronauts might face:

How will space explorers cope with isolation?
[...] It was the alone-ness itself that was frightening and my subsequent 59-day ski across the continent was dominated by my battle to deal with the shock of it.

I imagine that the first humans to visit Mars might experience a similar state of shock at their disconnection from human society. It is intriguing to wonder whether there might be parallels between the psychology involved in exploring Mars and exploring Antarctica.

Could potential astronauts preparing for long space missions across the solar system learn anything useful from experiences like mine in Antarctica?

As I began my loneliest of expeditions I had the benefit of more than a decade of previous polar journeys to draw from. In addition I had carefully prepared for the psychological stress of isolation, consulting a specialist sport psychologist.

Yet, I was taken aback by the range of ways in which the alone-ness affected me. I became increasingly emotional. With no one to witness my behaviour, I allowed inner feelings to flow into outward expression without check. If I felt angry, I shouted. If I felt upset, I cried.

Self-discipline became much harder. Surrounded by others, taking risky short-cuts isn't a possibility, largely because of the embarrassment of being discovered. But alone, with no-one to observe your laziness, the voice of temptation was always present. I found that ignoring the voice of temptation was an extra drain on mental energy that simply hadn't existed on team expeditions.

My brain, starved of any input by the lack of colour, shape or form in my largely blizzard-obscured world began to fill in the gaps by creating hallucinations.

I was surprised to find that we can hallucinate not just with our visual sense but with all our senses. I hallucinated strange forms in the gloom of regular whiteouts that took the shape of floating hands and small bald men on dinosaurs, but I also hallucinated smells, tastes and sounds that all seemed very real.

As I skied, I began to direct my internal monologue at the sun (when it was visible through the bad weather) and was slightly perturbed when eventually the sun began to talk back to me in my mind. It took on a very distinct character and even though I knew on some level that it wasn't real, the sun played an important part in my coping strategies.

Routine became increasingly important to me in overcoming these damaging responses to alone-ness. When everything else in my landscape and daily experience was so surreal, routine became the rhythm that I clung to. I performed every task in exactly the same way, every time it had to be done. I repeated chores in the same order again and again until I reached the point that I barely had to think about them. Reducing the thought required seemed to simultaneously reduce the emotion.

This was despite the fact that I did have some connection to the outside world during my expedition. I carried a satellite phone which was capable of calling anyone in the world at any time from my tent -- and yet, largely, I decided not to.

I was scared of the emotional high that speaking to loved ones might bring, knowing that it would inevitably be followed by a crushing emotional low as I was forced to end the call. [...]
To read it is to almost be there in her shoes. Fascinating. See the links for pics and more.

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