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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Stress and Confinement

Q. I was watching a movie and one of the astronauts got space madness. Could you tell me more about stress and confinement related sickness?

A. Confinement in various stressful environments has been studied in a number of articles. For example, Sandal et al at the Department of Biological and Medical Psychology, University of Bergen, Norway, looked at psychological reactions during polar expeditions and isolation in hyperbaric chambers (Aviat Space Environ Med 1996 Mar;67(3):227-34). They collected data from 68 subjects: 18 in hyperbaric chambers, 16 in polar expeditions, and 34 on Arctic stations. They found that crews in hyperbaric chambers showed a steady increase in coping over the isolation. Polar expedition members reported high aggressiveness and anxiety in the first quarter of the trip, and an increase in homesickness over time.

A personality characterized by strong expressiveness and "instrumentality" ("the right stuff") predicted superior adaptation in hyperbaric chambers. The authors concluded that isolation in hyperbaric chambers and polar expeditions should be considered as models for different aspects of the space environment. Another study by Vaernes et al (Adv Space Biol Med 1993;3:95-120 ) studied six healthy males, isolated in hyperbaric chambers for a period of 28 days. During that period, they had to carry out meaningful operational and research tasks in addition to monitoring their psychological and physiological reactions.

Rather surprisingly, the psychosomatic assessment showed that there were few symptoms, and these were mostly of low severity. The most common symptom was general fatigue. The subjects' state of anxiety was actually below that of the general population throughout the isolation period--it seems some people take to this sort of environment! As for space madness--I have a feeling that Hollywood has more to do with that illness than does reality. For more on this topic, I suggest you get hold of the journals cited above.

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August 2001
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