Mastering your environment, the key feeling of wintering | Polarjournal
This study is partly based on the life of the French scientific base in the Kerguelen archipelago. Here photo taken on the summit closest to the base (Mont du Château) in winter. Image: Camille Lin

The personnel of the scientific bases is very diverse, a sort of lottery to which the members of the scientific missions are exposed when they go to work in the hostility of the poles. The difficulty is to hold on psychologically over the long term. A key feeling helps to get over the wintering heat: the control of one’s environment.

In this month of January, the scientific bases in the Arctic are in the depths of winter and some members of the French polar missions are returning from the south after more than a year of isolation. During their wintering, feeling in control of their environment was essential to keep their morale up during the cold season at the end of the world. The study by Michel Nicolas and his colleagues, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology last August, underlines the importance of this feeling to survive in extreme environments and brings a new point of view concerning the preparation of scientific, space and polar missions.

“The mastery of the environment is a feeling of control. It can be experienced in response to stress, and those who feel it then have the ability to mobilize resources to adapt,” explains Michel Nicolas from his office at the University of Burgundy Franche-Comté in Dijon. When this feeling operates within the members of a mission, there is a greater chance that bonds will be created between them.

“As in all the polar stations, the winterers who follow one another are isolated from their loved ones, with whom they keep a fragile link. They are permanently with people they get to know, but whom they did not choose. A small community that works together, but not only, they also share their daily life”, describes the research psychologist.

During this period, the physical environment is particularly hostile, it is cold and the atmospheric pressure often drops, announcing an episode of wind, rain or snow. “Under these conditions, they face weariness and monotony, and even the slightest conflict can quickly become significant,” he says. On the bases, it is common that there are problems of occupation, boredom can then take over the psychology of the winterers.

“A group is formed around the same values despite their differences, it can be adventure or exploration. To see if a group works well together, it is necessary to make a pre-start, in the military environment this is what is done” explains Michel Nicolas. Image: Camille Lin

Secondly, what induces the most anxiety are social issues such as gender, age, position, nationality, social comparisons and competition. If this experience was involuntary, the experience could be compared to that of prison confinement. “Once on the Dumont d’Urville base, one of the new arrivals triggered a psychotic episode as soon as he arrived”, Michel Nicolas reminds us. Stress is more pronounced in Dumont d’Urville in Antarctica than on the Kerguelen Archipelago, where the possibility of moving around outside is an activity that can be done with several people and during which there is an opportunity to talk.

The Kerguelen archipelago hosts about 100 people in the summer and less than 50 in the winter, while on the Antarctic at Dumont d’Urville, the number of people at the base falls below 30 in winter. The researchers consulted the overwinterers before their departure and then between the 6th and 12th month of the mission, with the support of the French Polar Institute. Fifty-three winterers from different missions completed psychological and physiological self-description forms.

“The profiles that succeed and recover well from stress and isolation are often people who adapt easily to change, and it’s the same thing in space,” says Michel Nicolas. They are people who have a strong emotional stability and tolerate frustration well. “Neither too introverted nor too extroverted. Extroverted is good for the atmosphere, but in the long run it can become a bit heavy” he adds. In general, these people are rather curious and open-minded.

The end of the wintering period is also a period that generates pressure, because there is the question of the aftermath that returns. “It is a kind of crossing of the mirror, reported to themselves with questions such as: “What do I want to do with my life? “What are my plans for the future? “How do I plan to return to my family?”, explains Michel Nicolas. The winterers have to readjust to the world and take back habits as simple as the use of the credit card, which they have had time to forget after more than a year.

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

Link to study: Michel Nicolas, Guillaume Martinent, Lawrence Palinkas, and Peter Suedfeld, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2022, Dynamics of stress and recovery and relationships with perceived environmental mastery in extreme environments,

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