Antarctic Winters Trigger Psychological Hibernation So People Can Cope With Isolation and Darkness

Brazilian scientists work in front of the Brazilian Comandante Ferraz Antarctic station on March 10, 2014. Researchers have investigated the psychological states of those who spend long periods in its environment. VANDERLEI ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images

Temperatures drop to -59 degrees Fahrenheit in winter, the air is almost void of oxygen and low pressure means breathing is tough: All this makes the Antarctic the most hostile region for humans on the planet. To survive such harsh conditions, researchers plunge into a state of "psychological hibernation," according to a study.

No one lives in Antarctica permanently, but researchers head out to the tundra because its untouched environment offers an unparalleled place to conduct studies into areas of research spanning astrophysics, glaciology, geophysics, climate change, and ozone depletion. Earlier this year, for instance, scientists recorded a strange "singing" emanating from an Antarctic ice shelf.

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But living in this environment can be tough. The white landscape is monotonous, privacy is a luxury, and researchers interact with the same small group day in day out, for months on end. At times, it is not possible for provisions to be delivered, and visitors can't be evacuated from the region even in emergencies, wrote the authors of the study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. And as infrastructure is more prone to breaking down than elsewhere on Earth, the ability to contact the outside world can be snatched away without warning, and not immediately fixed.

The drop in mood and sleep disorders that many researchers experience in the coldest, darkest season has earned the name "winter-over syndrome."

To investigate the toll the winter climate puts on Antarctica's temporary inhabitants, scientists studied two crews in the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian research facility in an area known as Dome C (altitude 10,604 feet). Due to its extreme temperatures, the crew could rarely venture outside. And the participants were secluded to three areas of the base connected by covered walkways: the quiet area which includes sleeping quarters; a noisy area for food and facilities like the gym; and third featuring utilities like the boiler room and scientific equipment. They were monitored from February until November.

The first crew composed of 14 men with an average age of 38 years, while the second included three women and 10 men with an average age of 34.

The team asked the participants to keep a sleep diary, and fill out questionnaires to measure their emotional state and uncover coping mechanisms.

As winter wore on, the participants' reported their sleep suffering, and a loss of positive emotions.

Nathan Smith, research associate in psychology and security at the University of Manchester, commented the finding reflected what is known as "psychological hibernation."

The authors found the team used coping strategies like thinking of worse scenarios than that which they were in; acting to solve problems immediately; actively trying to relax, and removing themselves from problematic situations.

But the researchers were puzzled to find that the participants were less likely to uses their coping strategies in midwinter. That may be because participants became "indifferent or emotionally flat during the winter months," the authors wrote.

Smith explained: "Previous research has suggested that this [psychological hibernation] 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."

"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," he said.

But Antarctic stations, he continued, "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."

A international team of scientists from the University of Manchester, U.K., Norway's University of Bergen, and Tilburg University in The Netherlands worked together on the study.

As astronauts endure similar conditions—high altitudes, isolation, and confined spaces— the research could also be used to aid space exploration, they said.