Winter in Antarctica: health despite discomfort

Winter in Antarctica: health despite discomfort

Eleanor Smith


Researchers examiningthe health effects of stress are now focusing on personality traits, support systems and an individual’s response to stress-provoking situations. Intriguing new evidence suggests that some types of stress might, in the long term, actually do more good than harm.

Some of these positivestresses may be present in the experience of wintering in Antarctica, according to recent studies by anthropologist Lawrence A. Palinkas of the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego.

Since the late 1950s,scientists have endured the hardships of working in Antarctica in order to conduct biological, geological and meteorological experiments. For the four U.S. research stations currently there, the Navy provides support personnel selected from a pool of volunteer applicants.

To determine both the medical andpsychological effects of spending six to eight months confined in a research station with a few dozen colleagues, Navy physicians and psychologists have conducted periodic studies on the health of the Navy personnel. Nearly three decades of research has reached one incontrovertible conclusion: Wintering over in Antarctica is not easy.

Major stresses include social andphysical isolation, monotony and confinement, as well as a lack of control over one’s environment and traditional sources of gratification. Studies have shown that even the healthiest individuals who spend the winter (mid February to mid October) in Antarctica often feel downright lousy. They show their discontent in symptoms ranging from dry skin and nausea to feelings of paranoia and intense loneliness. Most frequently, they report sleep difficulties (extreme variation in the light/dark cycle disrupts the body’s daily rhythms), headaches, depression, irritability and anxiety.

Now comes Palinkas, whose studiessuggest that, in spite of the grueling conditions in Antarctic research stations, spending a winter there might result in better, not worse, health. “That which does not kill you will make you stronger,’ he says, paraphrasing Friedrich Nietzsche.

Palinkas reviewed the medical historiesand psychological profiles of all Navy personnel who were accepted for Operation Deep Freeze (as the Antarctic tour of duty was known) between 1963 and 1974. He divided these people into two groups: those who actually spent a winter “on the ice’ and, for comparison, those who, for various reasons, did not.

“One of the things Ifound is that the group that wintered over had a lower rate of all-cause first hospitalizations subsequent to Antarctic duty’ than the comparison group, he says. “In other words, those who went down there ended up being healthier than those who didn’t.’

To find out what accountedfor this phenomenon, Palinkas first investigated the possibility of what’s known to epidemiologists as “the healthy worker effect.’ “People who are employed, for one thing, and people who are employed in certain industries, for another, are naturally healthier than people in other types of industries and unemployed people,’ he explains.

He discovered that the comparisongroup, the ones who didn’t winter over, actually had fewer health risks (i.e., smoke and drank less) to start out with and were generally, younger than the group that did, which should have resulted in better health afterwards. “If the healthy worker effect really does operate here, it’s operating completely in reverse of our expectations,’ Palinkas says.

So he developed an alternate hypothesis:The winter-over group learned something useful from its experience in the Antarctic. Palinkas now believes that when forced to deal with the extremely stressful Antarctic environment, the Navy personnel actually learned coping strategies that they incorporated into their lives, thereby reducing their risk for illness in the long term.

The benefits of wintering at theSouth Pole, however, were not spread evenly among all of the servicemen and women in Palinkas’s study. Personality profiles taken before the men and women headed south for the winter and follow-up studies done after their return show that those who have the ability to exercise authonomy and self-sufficiency (those higher up in the chain of command, for example) suffer fewer medical any psychological problems while on the ice than less autonomous and self-sufficient individuals. Further, individuals who scored high on a need to control other people and a need for achievement had significantly fewer first hospitalizations after wintering over than those who scored low.

In other words, autonomous, independentindividuals with an internal sense of control were better able to cope with the stresses of an Antarctic winter–and to benefit later on.

Palinkas’s most compelling finding,however, is that even those individuals who scored low in self-sufficiency and assertiveness before their Antarctic stint appear to have learned from the experience, based on their lower rate of first hospitalizations upon returning home.

“Even when you control for all thedifferent factors, such as personality, age and education, people who winter over still end up being healthier than people who don’t winter over. There’s something about the experience itself that seems to have a beneficial effect,’ Palinkas says.

His contention that the Antarcticwinter teaches coping skills is backed by research conducted by Anthony Taylor, a clinical psychologist at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Taylor found that by the end of the winter-over period, New Zealand’s station personnel tended to be a lot more independent and self-sufficient than they were are the beginning.

To further test his hypotheses, Palinkashopes to go to Antarctica to conduct personality tests on U.S. station personnel both before and after the Antarctic winter. He would also like to identify which of the multitude of stresses lead to positive change. “It could be that only certain types of stresses can be considered beneficial,’ he says. These and other questions must be answered, he contends, “before you start making assumptions that simply because someone experiences stress, he or she is going to get ill.’

COPYRIGHT 1987 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group