People on polar expeditions can undergo serious negative psychological changes as they struggle to adapt to their isolated, extreme and confined environment; but also positive changes due to sense of achievement after having coped with such a stressful situation.

Dr Lawrence Palinkas, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA and Dr Peter Suedfeld, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, did a review of published data on polar expeditions, specifically focussing on psychological or social dimensions of behaviour.

The authors say: “Polar expeditions include treks and stays at summer camps or year-around research stations. 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.”

Factors on expeditions which can cause stress include great physical exertion, fatigue and exhaustion. Polar environments are also filled with hazards such as very cold temperatures, crevasses, blizzards, slippery ice and frozen lakes, adding to the risk of accidental injury or death. Cycles of night and day are more extreme than at lower latitudes, with six months of light followed by six months of darkness at the poles, disrupting the body clock (circadian rhythms). The sheer isolation of the environment can also lead to emotional deprivation, and social confinement. The authors say: “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.”

These stresses can cause various symptoms. Sleep disruption is common, with one study of Russian miners in Svalbard, Norway, reporting 88% of men and 77% of women as having had sleeping problems lasting at least two weeks. Memory loss, difficulty in concentrating, reduced alertness, and depression are also common. Although teams on polar expeditions have great social cohesion due to common goals, interpersonal conflict is the greatest source of tension in polar expeditions.

The symptoms can be divided into three main “syndromes”. The cluster of symptoms comprising sleep disturbance, impaired cognition, negative effect, tension and conflict is known as winter-over syndrome. It is best described a subclinical condition similar to subclinical depression. Symptoms are usually worse in the middle of an expedition, when people realise they are only half way through, and then generally improve thereafter.

Changes in thyroid function (polar T3 syndrome) also affect the moods people on expeditions, and mimic the seasonal highs and lows of serum thyrotropin-stimulating hormone seen at the poles, while subsyndromal seasonal affective disorder is related to variations in patterns of light and darkness.

However, polar expeditioners are just as likely, if not more so, to have a positive reaction to their experience. Many will enjoy the situation itself, and enjoy positive reactions to challenges of the environment and having encountered and successfully surmounted these challenges. The authors found frequent references to “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.” They add that many people volunteer for repeated expeditions, proving the benefit of the experience.

The authors conclude that both detrimental (pathogenic) and helpful (salutogenic) experiences are common for people on polar expeditions. They say: “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.”