White Coat, Black Art·Q&A

What working in an Antarctic station taught this researcher about coping with isolation

Based in Antarctica’s Concordia research station, Dr. Nick Smith shares his experience as one of the “most isolated humans on earth, in one of the harshest environments.”

‘We are human.... It’s OK to struggle,’ says Dr. Nick Smith

Dr. Nick Smith, the European Space Agency’s research medical doctor at Concordia station in Antarctica, arrived last November and is expected to stay for a year. (S. Thoolen/ESA/IPEV/PNRA)

This is a story from White Coat, Black Art's series called Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID on the many challenges people are facing during the pandemic, and what they're doing to find resilience.

For the past year, people have found themselves physically and socially distanced at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But few are as isolated as Antarctic researcher Dr. Nick Smith.

Smith, 33, was working in a northern Scotland hospital in a COVID assessment and treatment unit when he started preparations for his trip to Antarctica as part of the European Space Agency's research into the long-term effects of isolation and how the body and mind adapt to extreme environments.

The British doctor is one member out of a crew of 12 people, research scientists and technicians responsible for keeping the Antarctic Concordia station running. They arrived last November and are expected to stay for a year.

The nearest human settlement is the Russian Vostok station about 560 kilometres away, and the climate is harsh with summer temperatures rarely exceeding –25C and winter temperatures reaching about –80C.

Concordia research station in Antarctica is one of the most remote locations in the planet. Pictured in this image is the astronomical observatory near the base, May 5, 2020. (S. Thoolen/IPEV/PNRA/ESA)

"During the winter months, travelling to or leaving the station is impossible — this includes medical evacuation," wrote Smith in an email to White Coat, Black Art.

"This picture leads to us being perhaps some of the most isolated humans on earth, in one of the harshest environments."

White Coat, Black Art corresponded with Smith over email — the research station is so remote that it's difficult to get a phone connection — about what it's been like so far, and how he's coping in this isolated environment.

Here is part of that exchange.

What is the health impact of isolation on people over time?

The main impact will be on mental health, but this of course has a significant knock-on effect to physical health.

The two are intrinsically linked and affect one another a great deal.

Set in one of the planet's harshest locations, the European Space Agency considers Concordia 'an ideal stand-in for studying the human psychological and physiological effects of extreme cold, isolation and darkness.' (S. Thoolen/IPEV/PNRA/ESA)

In terms of mental health, isolation and social monotony —  if not accounted for — can lead to signs and symptoms consistent with depression and anxiety. It can also exacerbate existing mental health issues and make it difficult to cope with the rigours of daily life, even if [you are otherwise] mentally well.

What kind of impact has this isolation had on you so far?

Other than the light levels, the environment here doesn't change a great deal — we have sunny, cloudless days mostly, without much change in weather.

This was a surprise to me, but it's draining not seeing changes in your environment.

I find that my natural variation in mood has higher highs and lower lows in isolation. Recognizing these peaks and troughs allows me to identify when my internal reactions perhaps are a little irrational and don't need externalizing. When the whole crew does this, it leads to a calmer and easier living situation.

Dr. Nick Smith, left, and pictured with his predecessor, medical doctor Stijn Thoolen. (Nick Smith/ESA/IPEV/PNRA)

Being apart from my partner and loved ones naturally has an impact but knowing that it is impossible to see them has a special significance. The hardest thing is knowing that if something does happen at home, I will not be able to return to offer support or help.

I've come to realize the importance of routine. Having the same get-up times and some structure helps me plan my research and free time.

What has helped you cope personally with the isolation?

I found that given the abundance of time, taking time to do things properly, calmly and to think about them before I do them has been very helpful. It allows me to do things to a high standard that I can be proud of.

My partner is extremely supportive, as is my family. Keeping regular contact with them in private and group chats and regular video calls has been a major help.

Being honest and talking about my feelings here has a therapeutic effect of its own — both with the crew and my loved ones. [It] also allows my family to understand me better. I believe they use this information to tailor their support, for which I am extremely grateful.

Smith says keeping regular contact with his family has been a major help in coping with isolation. Pictured: Smith visits the ‘tubosider,' used as a storage facility for vehicles as well as biological samples and ice cores. (S. Thoolen/ESA/IPEV/PNRA)

Introspection and reflecting on my emotions from time to time have been extremely helpful. It allows me to compare my thoughts and feelings to those during a normal time and to gain some perspective on how I'm feeling — a comparison to a sort of baseline. It also helps me know when to seek support, which is crucial. 

Keeping a diary has been useful not just for this, but also later in life, it [will give] an interesting insight to a unique experience. 

Are there any hobbies or interests that have helped you?

I find reading to be really helpful. It takes you out of reality for a moment and gives you time to use your imagination. 

I personally enjoy computer games. I downloaded one before I left that is essentially infinite so [it] provides me with constant entertainment and a way to be creative. However, it's not an active hobby so it has to be balanced with exercise or activity.

I have an exercise routine here with another chap on my crew, which is essential for me — both the routine and the exercise. You don't have to look far to find the benefits of exercise on mental health, and having routine in isolation is a good way of giving yourself structure. Doing it with exercise is a great way to kill two birds with one stone. 

Planning for special occasions and making an effort to mark occasions is a good way of giving yourself something to look forward to. For example, we have celebrated the start of our winter as a crew, and we look forward to crew birthdays, the first sunset, midwinter, first sunrise, summer crew returning, etc.

WATCH | European Space Agency: Isolation in Antarctica

If you were talking to someone directly right now who's having a difficult time with isolation during the pandemic, what would you say to them?

  • Reflect on how you're feeling and be honest with yourself. We are human, and with this comes highs and lows — it's natural and it is in no way a weakness or a failure to struggle with some of the toughest circumstances we have suffered. It's OK to struggle.
  • Don't isolate yourself further: reach out to friends, family, mental health support services or your family doctor and be honest if you feel you're struggling. In my experience, my patients have often felt great relief at just having a conversation with someone about their worries and anxieties. Sometimes a phone-call to mum [or other family members or friends] may be enough to turn things around.

WATCH: Psychiatrist Dr. David Gratzer on coping with isolation

Battling that feeling of being alone

The National - Full Show

4 months ago
Psychiatrist Dr. David Gratzer says the key to coping with feelings of isolation is establishing connections and he had some suggestions for how to do that. 1:03
  • If there's room for improvement in your routine, try to make small changes that last rather than big unsustainable ones.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Do some exercise or something active — the body releases endorphins that stimulate the part of the brain responsible for happiness and reward.

As an individual it can be hard to see the positive impact that isolation and following government guidance is having — especially on a population scale. Rest assured that your actions are so valuable in pushing back against the pandemic and the better we do them now, the bigger the positive impact will be.

Q&A edited for length and clarity.

Written by Ruby Buiza. Produced by Sujata Berry

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