Plans are underway for a permanent base on the Moon and human missions to Mars. These missions will be challenging for crew members and supporting the search for ways to maintain physical and psychological wellbeing and promote high performance is key. In this blog, Professor Emma Barrett and Dr Nathan Smith outline their recommendations for surviving in extreme conditions and, indeed, for everyday life.
- UK research efforts on coping in extreme conditions, whether in space or on Earth, are currently underfunded and poorly coordinated. Few mechanisms exist to translate this research into practice.
- This research also applies to everyday life. The psychosocial demands astronauts encounter, for example, are comparable to the stressors that arose for millions of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- More substantial funding is needed as a matter of urgency, as well as a vehicle through which to coordinate the production and translation of research to help us leverage the most benefit from studies.
Living in the extreme
Simulation and analogue studies are helping us understand coping with the challenges of living in extreme environments. Over the last decade, we have examined participants’ experiences, including conducting scientific fieldwork in some of the most inhospitable places on Earth, climbing mountains, crossing deserts, and training for and participating in space missions.
Research from The University of Manchester has provided insight to the motivations of people who choose extremes and how they prepare for and cope with stress. This knowledge is being used for the selection, training and mission support of astronauts and cosmonauts.
Along with Manchester Metropolitan University, we worked on a project focused on stress and coping in a long-duration space mission. Participants in the SIRIUS-21 simulation, run by NASA, ESA and the Russian Academy of Sciences, completed measures that allowed us to track experiences during a 240 day isolation mission in which they carried the same tasks as future space missions. As part of an ESA task force, we are drawing up recommendations for the design and delivery of simulation studies so future studies replicate the experience of a space mission accurately. In another study, we are helping NASA validate a survey tool for tracking and monitoring crew function, which could inform timely interventions that optimise performance and reduce risks in future space missions.
Supporting regulatory flexibility
A key finding from the research is how stress fluctuates during a mission. We asked expedition-goers to record their coping strategies, for instance, focusing on the present, talking to team members, or keeping their emotions to themselves.
Previous research suggested some coping strategies are better than others. However, results show experienced expedition-goers often have several coping strategies and engage in ‘regulatory flexibility’, where strategies are matched to particular stressors or combinations of stressors. This means that some apparently contradictory strategies – sharing or bottling up emotions, for instance – are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in themselves, but either may be appropriate depending on the context.
One of our projects is designed to support people with less experience of extreme environments to develop regulatory flexibility. Using an app we created – the ‘DRIFT application’ – expedition-goers track their mood, performance and experiences, and based on their data, the app suggests coping strategies, and videos of experienced expeditioners describing how they coped. Pilot testing indicated this was a valuable way of tracking emotional progress and accessing personalised support. Space missions will continue to track behaviour and wellbeing, and tools like DRIFT support interventions with real-time feedback and suggestions.
Lessons for lockdowns
This research can also be applied to everyday experiences. As the world locked down in 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, millions of people found themselves isolated and confined. Dealing with isolation and confinement is key to surviving and thriving in space, and although the physical context is very different, the psychosocial demands astronauts encounter aren’t so different to lockdown.
Fortunately, these studies of how people cope in extreme environments offers strategies we can all use. For instance, it can take a week or two for astronauts to adjust to their ‘new normal’, both when joining a new mission, and when leaving it. Their adjustment is helped by having routine and keeping busy, facilitating a sense of control and consistency. So although the initial stages of a lockdown can be stressful and uncertain, it’s useful to know this is usually temporary, and a routine can reduce stress and anxiety. It can also be comforting to know that low mood and a lack of motivation are common in isolated and confined conditions but can be alleviated – small celebrations can lift moods and foster a sense of togetherness.
Particularly in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people experienced high levels of fear and anxiety. We learn from people in extreme environments that a good way to avoid becoming overwhelmed is to focus on the most important, achievable, and immediate tasks.
One of the most damaging stressors in space is being in close proximity with the same people for long periods of time. Astronauts, in common with members of other ‘extreme’ teams, often agree to open and honest conversations, to resolve problems before they lead to tension and arguments. The same advice can be applied to isolating with others in lockdown.
Supporting frontline workers during the pandemic
During COVID-19, healthcare and other frontline workers faced a prolonged period working under unprecedented physical and psychological stress, and needed robust and practical guidance as quickly as possible. We established an informal working group of academics and practitioners, and worked with the NHS Response Team to identify requirements, producing a series of user-friendly, evidence-based briefs that were shared with first responders throughout the UK. Feedback was extremely positive and the work was promoted by international healthcare networks including the World Health Organisation and the Johnson & Johnson Institute. The briefs remain available and will continue to be updated. This contribution was possible because of extensive research on performance under stress, and our global network of collaborators.
Promoting wellbeing through adventure activities
Our work also supports public policy objectives through engagement with grassroots adventure communities that reach out to those under-represented in adventure activities. We’ve shared research with groups like Adventure Mind and the Women’s Adventure Expo to support and inspire people to step into adventurous activities, especially women, people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and minority ethnic communities, and those facing physical and mental health challenges. What constitutes an ‘extreme’ environment for some will seem ordinary to others: a weekend of wild camping, or a solo trip abroad. But all adventurers start somewhere, and overcoming fear of the unknown and building skills and confidence in increasingly challenging contexts is a vital component of developing resilience and improving mental health.
Information for policymakers
Although studying astronauts and other ‘extreme operators’ may initially appear relevant to very few people, our research highlights the value of adventurous activities to building life-skills and promoting psychological wellbeing. And, as climate change contributes to increasingly extreme conditions, our research will become increasingly relevant to everyday life.
Key policy considerations:
- UK research efforts on coping in extreme conditions are currently underfunded and poorly coordinated, and few mechanisms exist to translate that research into practice. The UK Space Agency can only support a few small projects on human activity in space, and other funding, especially in the social sciences, is limited. More substantial funding is needed as a matter of urgency.
- We need a vehicle through which to coordinate the production and translation of research to help us leverage the most benefit from studies. US scholars benefit from the NASA-supported Translation Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH), which develops, manages, and exploits human science research both on-orbit and on-Earth. Support for a similar centre in the UK, which coordinates the translation of human and social science findings from Earth to space and back again, could make a significant difference to developing evidence-based support, not just for astronauts, but for people from all communities.
This article originally appeared in On Space, a collection exploring how pioneering research into the space sector will continue to help impact UK and international space policy through the development of home grown space capabilities, supporting international collaborations and the levelling up of our space economy. Published by Policy@Manchester.
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