Polar explorers may experience negative psychological changes as they struggle to cope with isolation, extreme conditions and confined environments. On the other hand, the elation of having coped with so much successfully brings positive benefits, according to a report in this weeks edition of The Lancet.

The study, carried out by Dr. Lawrence Palinkas, University of Southern California, and Dr. Peter Suedfeld, University of British Columbia, examined published data on polar expeditions. They focused mainly on the psychological dimensions of behavior.

"Polar expeditions include treks and stays at summer camps or year-round research stations," they wrote. " People on such expeditions generally undergo psychological changes resulting from exposure to long periods of isolation and confinement, and the extreme physical environment. Symptoms include disturbed sleep, impaired cognitive ability negative affect, and interpersonal tension and conflict."

Physical exertion, fatigue and exhaustion are factors which trigger stress for explorers. The peril posed by extremely cold temperature, blizzards, crevasses, slippery ice, and frozen lakes add to the risk of injury, and even death. Their body clocks (circadian rhythms) have to adjust to polar night/day cycles, which may consist of months of daylight or continuous darkness.

The researchers commented that "Absence of privacy and constant gossip are frequent on polar expeditions and have a negative effect on social relations, especially relations between men and women."

It is not uncommon for those on polar expeditions to suffer from sleeping difficulties as a result of stress. In a study on Russian miners who worked in Svalbard, Norway, 88% of the men and 77% of the women said they had sleeping problems that went on for a couple of weeks. Other problems include loss of memory, inability to concentrate/focus properly, a poor state of alertness, and depression.

The authors noted that while most polar expedition groups worked closely and cohesively, interpersonal conflict seems to be a common source of strain.

The authors divided the symptoms into three main 'syndromes', which included a cluster of symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, weakened cognition, negative effect, tension and conflict - collectively known as 'winter-over syndrome'. They describe it as a subclinical condition which is similar to subclinical depression. Symptoms peak half-way through the expedition - probably because people realize they are only half-way through. During the second half symptoms tend to improve.

The moods of the explorers are also affected by changes in thyroid function, known as 'Polar T3 Syndrome'. Symptoms are not unlike the seasonal highs and lows of serum thyrotropin-stimulating hormone seen at the poles - subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder is linked to differences in patterns of darkness and light.

The authors state that a positive reaction to their experience is just as likely, if not more so. Numerous explorers will enjoy the entire experience and enjoy positive reactions to challenges of the environment. They thrive on the feeling of having successfully overcome these challenges. They quote such expressions as "the beauty and grandeur of the land, ice, and sea, the camaraderie and mutual support of the team, the admirable qualities of their leader, and the thrill of facing and overcoming the challenges of the environment."

The fact that many of them sign up for repeat expeditions is proof that the experience does them good, say the authors.

"Prevention of pathological psychogenic outcomes is best accomplished by psychological and psychiatric screening procedures to select out unsuitable candidates, and by providing access to psychological support, including telephone counselling. Promotion of salutogenic experiences is best accomplished by screening for suitable personality traits, and training participants in individual coping strategies, group interaction, and team leadership," they conclude.


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