In Antarctica, scientists enter an extreme state of ‘psychological hibernation’

Some of the world’s most important science is conducted in one of its most inhospitable, hostile places. But not without a cost, new research reveals.

A new long-term analysis of researchers stationed in Antarctica sheds new light on a psychological phenomenon very few of us ever have to experience: a unique coping mechanism, triggered when people are confined in isolation within a dark and extreme physical environment for several months at a time.

This condition – known as winter-over syndrome – isn’t just something that faces scientists in Earth’s extreme polar regions.

People could also be susceptible in other exceptional kinds of prolonged confinement, researchers think, like during months-long missions travelling to (or stationed on) Mars, for example.

“Our findings could reflect a form of psychological hibernation,” explains one of the researchers behind the new study, psychologist Nathan Smith from the University of Manchester in the UK.

“Previous research has suggested that this is a protective mechanism against chronic stress, 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.”

To gain a better understanding of how winter-over syndrome presents itself, Smith’s team studied the psychological well-being of two crews of research staff based at Antarctica’s Concordia Station, run jointly by France and Italy, and located on the Antarctica Plateau in East Antarctica.

The 27 participants – who were stationed at the facility in two separate groups for roughly 10 months at a time, including the dark winter months – had their sleep quality measured via a sleep diary they filled in throughout the experiment.

They were also gauged on their emotional health and coping strategies, via two psychometric questionnaires: respectively, the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS) and the Utrecht Coping List (UCL).

What Smith and fellow researchers found was that the participants’ sleep quality and emotional state both suffered during the largely indoors confinement of the winter months, both of which began to recover when the summer brought warmer, brighter weather conditions.

These effects didn’t surprise the researchers, but what did was the way coping mechanisms played out during the experiment.

“Perhaps the most striking result from this study was the reduction in all of observed coping strategies during the midwinter period,” the authors explain in their paper.

“This pattern contradicts the idea that emotional strategies and avoidance take over from more active strategies in situations involving chronic stressors.”

In other words, the researchers had expected active forms of behaviour during the winter (such as problem-solving abilities) to decline, but passive forms (emotions like denial and depression) to increase.

But that’s now what happened. In the study, these passive forms of coping also seemed to decline in response to the extreme confinement, resulting in a general indifference and emotional flatness.

The researchers say this is consistent with a “mild psychological fugue state known as the Antarctic stare… characterised by an altered state of consciousness or pronounced absentmindedness, ‘drifting’, wandering off attention, and deterioration in situational awareness”.

In essence, the phenomenon does look to be a kind of psychological hibernation, which has also been observed in things like 520-day-long Mars mission simulations.

While the pseudo-hibernation comes with its share of negative symptoms, the researchers speculate it may have some positives, offering a way of dealing with the harshness and stress of long periods of confinement with little or no stimulation, and likening it to the ability to ‘switch off’ mentally from work stress.

That said the team acknowledge we need larger studies to examine this strange phenomenon further, even if this side effect of confinement and isolation might not the pose the same level of threat it did in times past.

“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,” Smith says.

“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.”

The findings are reported in Frontiers in Psychology.

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