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Self-Care in Space

The competencies that help humans succeed in extraordinary circumstances.

Key points

  • Whether in outer space or here on Earth, self-regulation is a crucial part of our self-care.
  • For astronauts, adaptability and learning to regulate emotions in depleted circumstances is key.
  • Among factors that contribute to good teamwork in space are perspective-taking, self-monitoring, and empathy.

Most of us have a self-care toolbox, a pharmacy for our psychological immune system, that helps us get through the highs and lows of our days. Its contents are varied, just as our needs and personalities are. Whether it’s a warm bath, a walk among the trees, or the solace of good company—self-care often emerges from a partnership with our environment. We turn to the things, places, people, and practices that we know and love for support and comfort.

Source: Mohamed_Hassan/Pixabay

What would self-care look like under radically new and challenging circumstances, say, in space, where we can no longer rely on our environments for familiar relief?

Psychologist Suzanne Bell leads the Behavioral Health and Performance Lab at NASA. Self-care, she says, is a critical competency for astronauts, which becomes even more crucial in long-term missions to the moon or to Mars.

Here is an interview with Suzanne Bell on how astronauts cope with the stress of demanding environments and what the rest of us can learn from their resilience.

What does self-care mean for astronauts?

Self-care is managing your health and readiness in order to be a part of the team and to contribute to the mission. A crucial part of self-care is self-regulation. Astronauts need to be able to self-regulate in different ways.

For example, astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have a high workload and spend their days keeping up with their schedules. As part of work-related self-regulation, this may mean successfully transitioning from the emotional high of a spacewalk to the next thing on their schedule, such as dinner or rest.

Astronauts also need to self-regulate socially. On long-term missions to the moon and beyond, the crew will be living together in very small quarters for weeks and even longer (up to 2 1/2 years on a mission to Mars). When they are tired or hungry, when they haven’t been successful at a task, they can’t just lash out at their crewmates. Astronauts don’t get to go home at the end of the day. They need to be able to figure out how to decompress, regulate their reactions, and rely on each other.

Self-regulating physically is another important competency. For all of us—whether on Earth or in space—physical health is as vital as mental health. To ward off the effects of microgravity on the body, astronauts on the ISS exercise around two hours per day and have access to a treadmill, a cycle, and a resistance machine. But on future longer missions, spaces are likely to be smaller, and equipment is likely to be more limited. Astronauts will need the motivation to keep doing the same exercises over and over again just to sustain their health. Similarly, in order to have enough calories to do the physically demanding spacewalks, they might need to motivate themselves to eat foods that they didn’t choose or are tired of eating. Taking care of our physical health requires self-regulation.

The self-care steps needed to effectively self-regulate in high-stress environments can differ by person. But a person’s awareness of what those steps are and how to take them is critical. Here on Earth, when it comes to self-regulation, one of our challenges is making time in our busy schedules for the right things while being surrounded by endless distractions.

Which emotion-regulation techniques are most valuable for astronauts?

The extensive training that astronaut candidates receive includes learning traditional emotion-regulation skills such as reappraisal and problem-focused coping. The key is learning to regulate emotions in depleted circumstances.

Social support is one of the primary coping mechanisms for astronauts on the ISS, where they have real-time access to family, friends, Mission Control, and psychological support. An interesting challenge that we’re working on in our research is the effect of long-term isolation on social support. A future Mars mission will involve up to a 22-minute communication delay each way between the crew and Earth, which will make real-time support and interaction with those on Earth impossible. Thus, while current approaches to coping are very helpful to astronauts aboard the ISS, future long-term missions will require a shift in what social support will look like.

What are the psychological constituents of adaptability—one of the key competencies for astronauts?

Adaptability is a trait, a process, and an outcome that allows people to survive and thrive in whatever circumstances come their way and the ability to do so with a long-term orientation. When you address a challenge by being able to successfully adjust to the demands of the environment without using up all your resources, but instead, by becoming stronger and better positioned for succeeding at future challenges—that’s adaptability.

What helps astronauts to work effectively in teams and across cultures?

Accomplishing complicated feats in space often requires an international effort. Thus, one of the skills that astronauts are trained on is cross-cultural competency. Good teamwork across cultures involves multiple factors. One is awareness of ourselves and our differences. People tend to apply their own cultural perspectives to make sense of others’ behaviors. But socialization in different cultures often comes with considerable variations in the way people make meaning of their world. Even things like how we approach problem-solving (for example, task-oriented vs. relationship-oriented) can look considerably different across cultures. Being aware of these differences, understanding and respecting them, having patience, and being able to talk through challenges when they arise are all part of being cross-culturally competent.

Other factors that contribute to good teamwork across cultures are perspective-taking, self-monitoring, and empathy. Perspective-taking is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and to understand how your actions or a situation might be perceived by others. When we can effectively harness our different perspectives, we can build something greater. It’s not only about tolerating differences. It’s about appreciating the beauty and power of multiple perspectives.

Self-monitoring entails understanding that people have different needs and monitoring yourself as you interact with them. Here, empathy can be helpful. Cognitive empathy involves understanding others’ perspectives. Emotional empathy helps in providing love and support to others. In space, because people are living and working together, it’s a dynamic situation that requires self-monitoring. This will enable individuals to serve the different needs of their relationships genuinely and effectively.

What is the most important contributor to success in the extraordinary circumstances of spaceflight?

There is no one particular attribute that guarantees success. Instead, it’s a cluster of contributing factors. Adaptability. Flexibility. Self-regulation. A technical orientation. Teamwork. Self-care. Team-care. These core competencies consistently show up in our analysis of the job and conversations with astronauts. Would I take people who are only adaptable but not good team players? No. You need to be good on your own and as part of a team—humble, empathetic, able to work with people under stress, and able to overcome any challenges that may arise, both individually and together.

Many thanks to Suzanne Bell for her time and insights. Dr. Bell is the lead psychologist at NASA’s Behavioral Health and Performance Lab. She has been awarded NASA’s prestigious Exceptional Achievement Medal for her leadership in behavioral health and performance research and operational domains supporting multiple human space exploration programs.

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