The month of August marks an interesting period in the Antarctic winter season, at least at the South Pole. We are still three months away from the arrival of new faces, fresh food, mail, and those wonderful (special) people who have been identified as our reliefs. For the past six months we have endured isolation from friends and family, as well as confinement to a very small area of the globe within a couple of kilometers of the South Pole…sometimes to the confines of the station unless there is a compelling reason to venture outside into the cold and dark. Some have nearly exhausted their emotional reserves and are simply tired of it all. Fewer words are spoken over meals. Some sit by themselves simply wanting to be left alone. Several are observed to occasionally have the “thousand mile stare.” A few have endured personal crises at home with the death of family or financial difficulties. It is for these reasons August has earned the moniker “Angry August” or in the parlance of behavioral psychology “Third Quarter Syndrome.”
It has been postulated there are four stages of adaptation through which wintering personnel adjust to their life in Antarctica. The first stage is the initial adaptation to the physical environment, the workload and work routine, as well as general living conditions such as shared heads (bathrooms) and galley (meal) hours. The second stage starts as soon as the initial adjustment ends, but personnel continue to experience the physiological and psychological effects of isolation, confinement, and extreme environment, often abbreviated as ICE. The extreme environment at the South Pole includes high-altitude, extreme light-dark cycles, very low humidity, and extreme cold. Sleep disturbances are a common manifestation to these environmental stressors, which further depletes emotional reserves. With the half way point comes the realization that one still has as far to go as has already been completed. The third stage, where the third quarter syndrome becomes apparent, involves such continuing psychosocial stressors as monotony (every day is essentially the same), boredom resulting from hypoactivity or hypostimulation, isolation from friends and family, and a restricted social environment. Emotional labiality, hypersensitivity, depression, a decline in motivation, and a decreased sense of well-being are all symptoms of third quarter syndrome. These symptoms can be overcome by “salutogenic” effects, which will be discussed below. The fourth stage occurs shortly before the end of the mission and involves feelings of euphoria, as well as some uncertainty with the upcoming reintegration with the civilized world.
Fortunately, the vast major of those wintering at the South Pole this year appear to have very healthy coping strategies. Many appear to use stress in a positive manner and deliberately sought employment here because of the challenging environment. They derive salutogenic (healthy) effects by completing the mission and meeting the challenge. For me it was the challenge of providing medical care in the most austere, isolated environment on Earth. Having experienced the haunting beauty of the polar regions in the Arctic, I knew my professional life would not be complete without experiencing Antarctica, and in particular the South Pole in the dead of winter. I will leave here in a few more months a better person and a more experience physician than when I arrived. With the returning Sun comes an optimism for an even brighter future ahead.