Stress and Stressors in Extreme Environments.
When we choose to travel in to the extremes and challenge ourselves, we are choosing to be exposed to stressors. Overcoming stress and thereby developing our resistance to stress and stressors in general can be a very rewarding experience. It is an experience which will transfer directly in to the rest of our lives, enabling us to have a more positive stress reaction when confronted with stressors in another environment; in our normal lives.
So, what is stress?
The classic explanation is that stress occurs when we are faced by demands which either exceed or appear to exceed our ability to cope with them. This means that stress depends on the environment and the way in which we perceive it. Stress and our stress response is something that can be adjusted and developed over time, through repeated exposure to stressors. The important thing to remember is that although we can all be exposed to the same things, we will react differently because of our ability to cope with the demands of them. You may not become stressed in the same situation as someone else because of your ability to cope with the same situation.
We all know what stress feels like but stress can occur in two different forms: chronic, which happens over a long time, and acute which is caused by a sudden stressor. Stressors can be physical, psychological or social and the effect they cause will vary for us depending on their severity, duration, predictability and controllability. The greatest stressors (physical and psychological) for us are generally things which last a long time and are uncontrollable[i]. Rather inconveniently for us; both of these factors are found in abundance on expeditions which are often long and full of unpredictability. This means that it is important that we understand what we are preparing for. Which in turn allows us to predict some of the stressors that we will encounter, this makes them more predictable and therefore slightly more controllable. The result is that we become less stressed when on an expedition.
Dealing with stress at 6,800m in the Himalayas:
One of the advantages of stress is that it can help us to learn. Oddly, one of the responses that we have to an acutely stressful experience is that our brain is more able to store very vivid memories of the event. This is important as it allows us to react quicker if we are exposed to the same (or similar) situation in the future. When stressed we also become more able to make quick decisions but less able to handle complex thoughts or plans[ii]. Stressful situations make us want to think in the short-term only and this leads to us making quick decisions, even if there is no timely reason to do so. This rushed decision means that we may miss key information and therefore make a decision from fewer options than are really available to us. Having a memory bank of similar experiences is key when trying to make quick decisions. Therefore, true experience or expertise allows us to function in more and more stressful environments. It prevents us from becoming overly stressed in the first place and enables us to make decisions based on many different options that we have previously experienced and learned from. We are therefore more likely to make the “right” decision. Without experience we are likely to suffer from a form of mental paralysis called decision inertia in which we are unable to make any kind of decision.
We can see that the stress response has helped us to survive but there are also some adverse effects of stress, particularly long term or chronic stress. If we are continuously stressed for too long then it can suppress our immune system which leaves us more likely to become ill. Under heavy stresses we can also develop post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD), something which has been widely recognised in the military.
Causes of Stress
Stress as we have mentioned can be physical, psychological or social.
Physical stressors are commonly found on expeditions. It is common to find the extremes of temperature taking a toll on your performance. Being too hot causes our central governor response to kick in and slow us down. Being too cold makes it difficult to perform any fine motor skills. Both of these will add to our stress levels.
The lack of oxygen encountered at high altitude is a very alien experience for many people. I have seen people spiralling towards a panic attack because their ability to breath normally was being obstructed and they could not control it at all.
Being hungry and thirsty will also influence our level of stress, however these are very easy things to build familiarity with. Remember…Hangry is not a real thing. It comes from having a very comfortable life for too long!
Discomfort, and pain from anything will increase our stress. It is worth preparing for these discomforts mentally and physically, carrying the ability to deal with a blister could be the difference between success and failure.
The lack of sleep, occurrence of odd environments and the noise or lack of noise can affect us. As can an under stimulating environment. Walking in a white-out with nothing to fix your eyes on can become very disorientating. Being in an environment which has an odd daily cycle such as the sun never setting or never really rising can also be a cause of stress. When In the arctic I find it becomes harder and harder to get up early when the sun never truly leaves the horizon. It is novel and quite nice for a while to see the sun in a constant sun rise but after a few weeks I find it draining. Similarly, being in an environment without colour is an oddly draining experience. Seeing mountains covered in snow with only black and grey rocks sticking out of them for weeks at a time also makes you crave colour.
Living in forced proximity with others can cause stress. This is mainly due to the lack of privacy it causes us. It can be a very important issue when working in small teams as this forced proximity can lead to social tensions. When in such positions it is important to have good communication with one another because there is nothing like poor communication and misunderstandings to create social conflict. The stress that we feel can be infectious, we can transmit our own anxieties on to other people which increases the pressure on them. All of these factors can compound the others and create a toxic environment.
So, what can we do to affect our stress level?
The strongest defence to stress and stressors in extreme environments is experience. There is no substitute for really understanding what is going on around you (we call this a “cognitive appraisal”) and knowing that you have a plan and the skills to deal with it. Being a passenger on an expedition leaves you open to becoming highly stressed very quickly. This is why it is important to equip yourself mentally and physically to deal with the environment that you are heading towards. Familiarity with hunger, thirst and being thoroughly grubby whilst not getting enough sleep will prevent these things from having such a negative effect on you when it matters.
We should also consider two courses of action when dealing with stress. The first we will call the “Problem-solving response” and the second should be called the “emotionally-focused response”.
Let’s look at the differences. Imagine that you are on a mountain and you see a large anvil shaped storm coming your way, the rain whipping down and the thunder starting to make the air vibrate after the electrical charge from lightning. Being on a mountain and carrying a metal ice axe (the perfect lightning conductor) you are in a very vulnerable position. It is scary thinking that you may be struck by lightning or that the rain and wind may blow stones off the cliffs above you. It is imminent and there is nothing you can do to stop the storm. Our emotionally focused response must concentrate on how the situation is making us feel. We must deal with fear. Sometimes rationalising fear to yourself or coming to the revelation that you must accept your inability to influence the external stressor is the best way of doing this. Once we accept that there is nothing we can do to stop the storm we can begin to focus on our Problem-solving response. We can choose to try and out run the storm, seek shelter, get rid of metal-ware on us, put on waterproofs. Once we have taken all the problem-solving responses that we can; returning to the emotional responses is easier because we now feel that we have taken all the control that we can from the situation. It’s time to survive.
So in Summary…
Through being exposed to stress we become used to dealing with it. This can help us in our everyday lives so long as we are able to distinguish between chronic and acute stress, and are able to identify if they are having a negative effect on us. We should think about what type of stress we are under and whether we need to focus on the emotional or practical elements of it so that we can still function. Lastly, we should be conscious of the extent of our experience and what this means for our ability to deal with stress. By seeking out the knowledge skill and physical ability to make decisions and work in harsh environments we give ourselves the best chances of dealing successfully with stress. This means that we are more likely to make it home after being faced with a critical decision somewhere remote.
[i] Martin (1997)
[ii] Arnsten et al. (2012)