Stressed in Space

Science Fields

Have you ever wondered how astronauts are able to spend months in space? Even though they get extensive training before missions, it can be psychologically challenging for astronauts to live and work in space. Isolation, being away from family, monotony and changes in dark-light cycles are just some of the stressors that astronauts have to face in space.

Since these stressors are also present at the international research stations in Antarctica, Candice Alfano who is a professor of psychology at the University of Houston and colleagues did a study at two Antarctic stations to investigate the mental health issues that affect people who work in extreme environments. The study which was published in Acta Astronautica, highlights important factors contributing to the stress experienced by people like astronauts who work in isolated, confined and extreme (ICE) environments.

To identify the risks associated with working in extreme conditions, Dr. Alfano and her research team developed the Mental Health Checklist which helped them to track mental health symptoms of participants over a period of nine months, including the winter months. The researchers also examined changes in participants’ physical complaints, emotion regulation strategies and biomarkers of stress like cortisol.

The study findings revealed a continuous decline in positive emotions while physical symptoms became more severe across the study. Dr. Alfano and her team also observed a decline in the use of effective emotion regulation strategies. Namely, the participants’ ability to recognize and appreciate positive experiences and their ability to reframe situations considerably decreased compared to the start of the mission.

According to Dr. Alfano, “positive emotions such as satisfaction, enthusiasm and awe are essential features for thriving in high-pressure settings.” Therefore, it may be beneficial to focus on intervention strategies that enhance positive emotional experiences during prolonged missions in ICE environments.


  • 1. Alfano, A. A., Bower, J. L., Connaboy, C., Agha, N. H., Baker, F. L., et al. (2021). Mental health, physical symptoms and biomarkers of stress during prolonged exposure to Antarctica's extreme environment. Acta Astronautica, 181. 405-413. DOI: 10.1016/j.actaastro.2021.01.051
  • 2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/04/210420121549.htm
  • 3. https://www.nasa.gov/centers/johnson/pdf/569954main_astronaut%20_FAQ.pdf