Yesterday, six crew members of the MARS-500 mission stepped out of a self-contained isolation module. After 520 days living in a Moscow parking lot with only each other for company, they stepped back into the world with the rest of us. After being presented with a flower each, they were whisked off for a battery of medical and psychological tests.
The mission, conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA) is a study on the long-term effects of isolation. It hopes to bring us a step forward to Mars in dealing with that one little problem – Mars is a heck of a long way to travel for those of us who moan about a trip from Newfoundland to Vancouver. If we hope to make it to Mars, we are going to have to do some mental push-ups.
When it comes to Space Psychology, Nick Kanas is your man. For more than 30 years, this professor of psychiatry at University of California, San Franciso has been exploring the mental space of those under stress, and for the past 12 years, has been working to help astronauts get along.
On the NASA Science News website, Dr. Kanas talks about how most astronauts who make it past the application stage have extraordinary stress management skills. One of the suggested coping mechanisms of being in space is to know when it’s best to suppress your feelings (in moments of crisis) and when to let the pressure go and express your feelings (in moments of relaxation). The key is to find a good balance.
One of the mechanisms that can occur when astronauts grow weary of one other and tension mounts is to blame mission control. This way of dealing with stress is called displacement, and can be just as common for those in mission control (they feel stress and therefore blame management). In the long run, it isn’t a good approach, as it ignores the root of the problem. I’m sure anyone who works can relate to this.
So, how do space industry folks deal with stress, and how can we take a page from their book? Now that the MARS-500 mission is complete, I’m sure many thoughts on this will see the light of day. However, there are a few techniques that can be considered in the meantime.
One of them is simply to consider the idea that the general build-up of stress seems to happen halfway during a mission. Kanas suggests that the most appreciated mission commanders begin with a task-oriented approach, and move into a more morale-boosting approach during the peak stress period. As projects leaders in our everyday work, we could learn from this approach…and as peons we could gently suggest to our supervisor that our favorite past employers gave us a treat mid-week to keep us going.
A second, and cooler approach to stress management that NASA employs is the use of biofeedback. If you haven’t encountered this, think of the earliest form of virtual reality, with your hand linked up to sensors that control software. The feedback sensors measure your relaxation level, and the virtual game environment respond accordingly. You are rewarded for gradually learning to control your level of relaxation. It’s like Jedi Training. Amazing!
While you may not be able to have access to NASA’s specific biofeedback equipment, you can purchase biofeedback relaxation training through Wild Divine. It’s a stress management “relaxation training products” company headed up by the likes of Mr Soulful himself, Deepak Chopra. I purchased “The Passage” a year ago, and I love it. I’m not a usual video game player, and I found it very easy to navigate. If you are willing to train your breathing to float virtual rocks in a gorgeous mystical environment, or control your mind to make arrows fly to their archery targets, this is the program for you. Hint: if it is a bit pricey for you, you may be able to find some used copies on Ebay. Just make sure that you are also receiving the biofeedback hardware/sensors in good shape along with the software.
With just half an hour a day on this program, you’ll melt into a puddle of relaxation, and be well on your way to becoming as cool as a space cucumber.