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Polar Isolation

Updated: Apr 13, 2020

It can feel daunting to think about the weeks ahead. But many people have not only lived but thrived in similar circumstances, partly by proactively using their 'good side'.

Marion Dierickx is a polar scientist and a post doctoral fellow in experimental cosmology at Harvard, and spends 2 or 3 months each year at the Amundsen-Scott station at the south pole, so knows from her own unique experience how to survive physically and mentally in extreme isolation.

“It’s a very unchanging environment and you can’t really go outside,” Dierickx says, “so a lot of the psychological implications are similar to what we are experiencing now. I found that in my time there I would try to control my environment more. For example, we have lab space there and I would obsessively clean it, and I am doing the same thing now, stuck in my apartment.”

Dierickx, 29, also becomes very attentive to change. “Things like plants that grow noticeably or changing the decor of your room. It’s a good way to channel energy,” she says. “Nurturing our environment can only help our psychological balance.”

Sleeping at the station is not easy, particularly in the polar summer when it's light 24 hours a day. “Sleep is terrible, not just because of the light, but because it’s high altitude. You’re at 3,000m altitude, there’s only 70% oxygen. People will routinely have nosebleeds every morning. The combination of those things makes getting rest very challenging, and that makes everything else more challenging.” She says the key is to force yourself to sleep at set times. She also recommends board games and escapist books. Avoid War and Peace, and stick to thrillers.

How does she find living in such close proximity to a small group of people? “That is one of the main challenges,” she says. “Especially if there is someone you don’t get along with. I’ve found that I have to proactively use my good side, try to repair relationships and work on my generosity. I confront people with kindness.”

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