Exploring Arctic expeditions

Emma Davies reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

Imagine going on an expedition through the Arctic, carrying a heavy pack with everything you need to survive at sub-zero temperatures, battling the elements, fighting off frostbite, and keeping a keen eye out for polar bears. You are tired, hungry and cold. However tough and perhaps unappealing this might sound, these physical challenges may be much easier to cope with than the challenge of maintaining positive and supportive relationships with your fellow explorers.

According to Danny Golding of the University of Bedfordshire, who has been conducting research into stress and coping during expeditions, the social aspects of these journeys are vital to their success. Defined as a journey with a purpose, expeditions appear to be underresearched in comparison to other aspects of sport and exercise psychology. Given their social and cultural significance, Golding sought to shed light on what he calls the ‘unique micro-cultures’ that emerge within these temporary communities.

Golding’s interest in this unique topic area was sparked when he took up a call for teachers, like himself at the time, to join a five-week East­–West crossing of the Greenland Icecap. Together with his group, he travelled using skis, kites and dogs in the style of a classic polar journey, relaying the findings of science projects they conducted during the trip back to schools. Golding’s current research applies a transactional model to explore the structure and dimensions of stress and coping during expeditions such as these. Using in-depth qualitative analyses of diaries, field notes, interviews and momentary capture, Golding has developed a model of coping that considers the social, environmental, external, and personal factors that contribute to stress during a journey.

The research has drawn on participants who have taken part in five quite different, but similarly challenging expeditions, for example a five-month Antarctic journey, and a two-week mountain and river journey. Within these experiences, findings suggest that proactive coping strategies helped the participants to respond to the magnitude of the challenges that they faced. It became clear that having a set routine for daily tasks was important, as was planning, preparation and harmonising with the environment. Participants also reported using various adaptive strategies to help them to ‘switch off’ when the going was tough. For example, by repeatedly listening to a set playlist of music, saving food for specific times and, as one participant put it, ‘trying consciously not to think’.

The micro-culture within the team was, however, one of the most important factors that helped participants cope with the strains of the expedition. Golding says that this is the key to a happy and contented outcome, and consequently, a sense of growth from participating in such an extreme experience. If the team can support each other they can focus on shared goals and complete their tasks in a cohesive manner. When negative behaviours were perceived or experienced, this led to tension, strain, and conflict. According to one participant, when this happened, they felt like the journey became a ‘prison sentence’.

It might be difficult to understand just why people put themselves in these challenging situations. However, overcoming such adversity may enable these explorers to achieve personal growth, and the ability to overcome some of the problems faced on the journey was seen as a good experience. Participants suggested that they are attracted to such journeys because they are not experienced by many others. For some, these experiences allow them to feel significant and part of something bigger within the world. All of these factors may contribute to the overall wellbeing of those who endure such tough journeys. Golding now hopes to extend this work by moving on from stress and coping to exploring aspects of eudaimonic wellbeing.

For the rest of us, perhaps it is time to consider dusting off that backpack, gathering up a carefully selected group of friends, and heading off to the wilds, to face some extreme hardship and new environments. We may just become a little bit more resilient and happier because of it. 

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