Polar Explorers in Isolation

In 1996 Norwegian explorer Børge Ousland became the first person to cross Antarctica alone. It took him more than two months to ski across the most desolate landscape on earth, encountering temperatures of -40 degrees Celsius. The task was treacherous and the isolation was numbing. The beginning is almost the hardest part of any expedition – watching that plane vanish, taking those first steps on a trip that no one has succeeded in completing, is a shock to the system. 

It generally takes 10 to 14 days to find the inner harmony needed to survive in such an unforgiving world. But when it all comes together, being so totally alone is also a good experience. An expedition with others is more of a physical journey from A to B but a long solo trip has an added element of meditation.

Børge Ousland

What can we learn from Polar Explorers?

The first arctic explorers battled with ‘polar madness’; the anxiety and struggle to find hope and progress during a time of uncertainty. As they explored the polar landscape they struggled with limitless horizons and darkness, isolation, and fear; as well as sometimes complicated team dynamics. Sound familiar? Over time, they’ve developed coping mechanisms to grow accustomised to their environment and better deal with these extreme conditions. Here are some tips our homenauts can apply as well:

  • Break your day and week into small, realistic parts so that you don’t become overwhelmed by the time ahead of you. Make these goals achievable and give yourself a reward when it’s complete.
  • Emotion-focused coping strategies can help. Reframing the situation, using mantras, or making a gratitude diary that focuses on the small things that you’re grateful for, can all help to release emotions and get context.
  • Keep moving forward – remember we all have the ability to cope with this situation. If something isn’t working for you, move onto a new task or goal. Don’t get blocked and give up. 
  • Unlike the famous explorer Ernest Shackleton, who selected his companions after intense interviews, we have less choice. We need to find ways to interact and co-exist happily with our co-homenauts. Writing your feelings into a diary and reflecting on them the next day can help release any bottled-up tensions.

Want to know more about arctic explorers?

The ESA’s medical doctor Beth Healey has documented her antarctic journey. She is also sharing tips for dealing with isolation on Twitter.

Consider your PERSONAL MOTIVATION for isolating – from protecting yourself, grandparents and friends to reducing the likely time until business can re-open. I found keeping my motivations clear in my mind helped at difficult times.

Dr Beth Healey on Twitter
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