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The psychology of survival in the Antarctic

Some of the expedition members in training

Some of the expedition members in training

A team of British service personnel who are spending two months in Antarctica are having their psychological state-of-mind monitored by sports psychologists. The team from the University of Portsmouth are examining the coping strategies polar explorers use to help them work and survive in hostile environments.

The British Services Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole, which leaves after Christmas, marks the 100th anniversary of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition and involves 24 representatives from the armed forces. They will spend between 50 and 60 days in sub-zero temperatures conducting scientific research and visiting previously unexplored territory.

Drs Neil Weston and Chris Wagstaff from the University of Portsmouth have interviewed everyone on the expedition in advance of the trip and will assess their state of mind again on their return. During the expedition each person will keep a daily diary recording how they are feeling which will be assessed by psychologists on their return. They will examine what emotions they faced, what support they needed from each other and the coping mechanisms people used to support themselves and each other.

Dr Weston, from the Department of Sport and Exercise Science, said that the explorers will face a variety of pressures which will challenge their emotional well-being.

He said: “The physical and emotional demands of the expedition will put a huge strain on every member of the team, leaving them feeling emotionally vulnerable, yet it will be team-work that keeps the group together and ensures a successful trip.

Expedition member Stu Quinn of the RAF Regiment

Expedition member Stu Quinn of the RAF Regiment

“The unique physicality of the environment they will encounter will result in physical exhaustion, the chance of cold weather injuries and if bad weather hits, extreme boredom as the party may be holed up in their tents for three to four days. Tension and heightened irritability are common consequences of working in these harsh, cold environments so the chances of conflict within the party are high.

“The aim of our research is to examine the strategies that the expedition team use to support each other and to regulate their own emotions to ensure a safe and fully functioning unit.”

All expedition members were interviewed in December to assess how they felt in the run up to departure. Flight Lieutenant Stuart Quinn of the RAF Regiment said that as the departure date becomes imminent, the thought of the challenges lying ahead had suddenly become very real.

He said: “We have been training for over two years but until now our thoughts haven’t fully aligned themselves with the stark reality of surviving for two months in the Antarctic.

“Our feelings are an emotional roller coaster of excitement and trepidation. We are all extremely proud to have been selected for this truly once in a life time trip and are fully aware of the unique physical and emotional challenges that lie ahead.

“What we do know is that each of us will have to adapt to the environment in our own way and will come back changed people for the experience.”

At the end of the expedition the sports psychologists will examine how the group functioned both as individuals and as a team. They will produce a variety of recommendations for future expeditions or deployments in extreme environments as to how to optimise team cohesion and functioning. The expedition leaves in January 2012 and returns in March.

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