Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Emotional resilience in space

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Emotional resilience in space:
What are the emotional resilience requirements for living in space and how can these be developed?


Figure 1. Isolation in space can damage emotional resilience.

The experience of living in space may apply to but a small number of people to date, however much can be learned from their experiences. Since the beginning of space exploration attempts, great hurdles have needed to be overcome to propel humankind beyond the Earth's atmosphere. Not least of which, includes supporting astronauts to maintain a healthy psychological outlook in the face of adversity, pressure, high risk, and isolation. Examining how astronauts prevail under physical, psychological, environmental and interpersonal stressors can provide insight into thriving in extreme conditions. Using current research into resilience and positive psychology, space agencies have developed strategies that can support astronauts to boost their emotional resilience prior to spaceflight, maintain positive affect during both short and long term missions, and readjust to life on Earth upon their return. The success of these strategies can be extrapolated to other extreme situations experienced by military personnel, antarctic and oceanic researchers, and to members of the general population. This article explores these elements of emotional resilience in detail.

What is emotional resilience?[edit]

Emotional resilience (sometimes termed psychological resilience) describes a person's ability to recover from stressful experiences. In an individual, this might include self-efficacy, learned resourcefulness, sense of coherence, and can be measured across the lifespan (Van Breda, 2001). Rather than describing the ability to be unaffected by crisis or major life stressors, the focus of resilience focuses on the ability to "bounce back" from events, processing feelings and emotions until affect returns to equilibrium (Schwartz, 1997).  This concept can be described as salutogenesis. In treatment, this is a focus on supporting and maintaining wellness as a transition to recovery, rather than a separation of the dichotomy of health and sickness which usually surrounds the treatment of psychopathology (Antonovsky, 1979). 

The study of the [what?] field itself began as a shift away from a focus on pathology and abnormal psychology, looking towards coping mechanisms and recovery. This was a digression in psychological and social work literature in the early 1980s (Pearlin & Schooler, 1982). Resilience research often focuses on how people manage the impact of major life events such as natural disasters, or significant environmental stressors, such as being impounded in concentration camps (Perin and Schooler, 1982). Emotional resilience has not always been a focus for space programs. Historically, NASA considered its astronauts to be well adjusted enough to render psychological state a non-issue. As the space programs and their understanding of spaceflight grew, psychological stressors and their impacts became a part of space missions to be monitored and prevented where possible[factual?]. With the rise of positive psychology and prominent resilience theories, and increasing amounts of data and analysis opportunities growing with the expansion of space programs, researchers now more than ever are attempting to enhance emotional resilience in astronauts for all stages of spaceflight missions (Suedfeld, 2005).

What impacts emotional resilience in space?[edit]

Space is an extreme environment. There are many factors that contribute to the degradation of emotional resilience. According to Kanas and Manzey (2008), leaders in psychological and psychiatric space research, there are four categories of stressors that astronauts must face: physical, habitability, psychological, and interpersonal. The impact of these stressors on astronauts are greater when astronauts remain on missions for longer periods of time (Kanas et al., 2009). 

Figure 2. The International Space Station has been specifically designed to limit habitability stressors

Physical stressors[edit]

Physical stressors can include;

Psychological stressors[edit]

Psychological stressors can include;

  • isolation
  • confinement
  • danger
  • monotony
  • workload (either overwork or underwork)

Psychological stressors can lead to issues of performance, such as disorientation, visual illusions, attention deficits, error proneness and psychomotor problems. They may also lead to adjustment or somatoform disorders, depression and/or suicidal thought, and asthenia if stressors are not managed or mitigated (Kanas & Manzey, 2008).

Habitability stressors[edit]

Habitability stressors can include;

  • duration of mission (Liu et al, 2016)
  • vibration
  • ambient noise
  • temperature
  • lighting
  • air quality

Interpersonal stressors[edit]

Interpersonal stressors can include;

  • Interpersonal relationships (Endler, 2004). These might include tension, withdrawal, lack of privacy, scapegoating, or affect displacement (Kanas & Manzey, 2008).
  • gender issues
  • cultural effects
  • personality conflicts
  • crew size
  • leadership

Example: All stressors in space play a part

Characters in the science fiction film Passengers (2016) provide a great example of the impact of psychological stressors. Main character[grammar?], Jim, finds himself in an environment that may not impact negatively on him due to habitability. He suffers none of the physical side effects of microgravity, vibration or radiation. The futuristic ship accounts for his sleep routine and circadian rhythm. Despite this, his isolation is unmitigated, and this psychological strain causes him to experience discomfort, resulting in poor decision making. Below, potential psychological supports are discussed that could have boosted Jim's emotional resilience.

How can emotional resilience in space be developed?[edit]

Emotional resilience theories do not insist that negative emotions should not be experienced, nor should be avoided. In fact, many resilience theories agree that negative emotions can be adaptive (Fredrickson, 2004).  Fear, for example, can activate fight or flight responses, which can be protective in dangerous situations (Plutchik & Kellerman, 1980, Nesse, 1994). The focus of emotional resilience is the ability to overcome negative emotions, and return to adaptive positivity (Fredrickson, 2001). An encouraging aspect of this, is that many theories indicate that resilience can be practiced and developed over time. That is,[grammar?] one is not born with an unchanging capacity for resilience.

Developing emotional resilience on Earth[edit]

Figure 3. A four-step model for building resilience using Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (Padesky & Mooney, 2012)

There are many practices currently being used to build resilience in Earth-bound populations. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) has long been used to support people with recovery from various psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety (Butler, Chapman, Forman, & Beck, 2006).  Treating clinicians have taken CBT beyond treating present psychological distress, into prevention via resilience and happiness promotion through the treatment (Padesky & Mooney, 2012). This process includes encouraging patients to identify their strengths, conceptualise current resiliency habits, apply those identified habits or methods to other areas of life as strategies, and then find opportunities to apply those strategies. More recent research also promotes a "practice makes perfect" strategy for building resilience.  When building resilience in patients with depression, researchers recommend building capacity to recover from minor stressors, to assist in managing a "baseline" that allows for better management of larger stressors (Waugh & Koster, 2015). Waugh and Koster (2015) also recommend a focus on increasing positivity as a means of building resilience. Research has found that positive emotions can be activated automatically. This may be by presenting faces displaying positive emotions to participants, which can boost experiences of unrelated tasks (Taugade & Fredrickson, 2007).  Training patients in a number of different strategies to deploy can provide patients with flexibility to deploy the right strategy for a wider variety of stressors. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT), which trains participants in specific skills to manage distressful emotions, has proven to be effective in building resilience in patients with chronic conditions (Haghayegh, Neshatdoost, Adibi, & Shafii, 2017).  DBT has been found to improve emotional regulation for patients with Boarderline Personality Disorder (BPD) at a biological level, measured by changes in the amygdala (Goodman, Carpenter, Tang, Goldstein, Avedon, Fernandez, ... & Siever, 2014).

Strengthening group memberships, and setting achievable goals in areas of life, are common elements of community based treatment of psychological disorders (Paton, 2005).  Recovery models identify connectedness as a key component for recovery from mental illness (Jacobson & Greenley, 2001).  This also has implications for the treatment of depression, where isolation and loss of engagement in rewarding groups/relationships is common. Focusing on improving social belonging increases the likelihood of preventing relapses and building emotional resilience (Cruwys, Haslam, Dingle, Haslam, & Jetten, 2014).

Developing emotional resilience in space[edit]

The development of emotional resilience for astronauts occurs across all stages of deployment: prior, during and post spaceflight. Each stage requires unique strategies to ensure optimal emotional resilience for those astronauts experiencing the extreme environment of space.

Prior to spaceflight[edit]

The selection process of astronauts ensures that even from the very first stages of preparation and training, people with a predisposition towards higher levels of resilience are chosen. This is similar to processes used for other extreme environment selection and training, such as those used by high profile military teams (i.e. Navy Seals, SWAT Bomb Disposal teams) (Picano, Williams & Roland, 2006). Processes include psychological testing, interviews, and medical history checks. Successful applicants are deemed to be least likely to develop psychopathology or have any such history of mental health issues (Suedfeld & Steel, 2000). High levels of emotional stability are also essential for extreme environment personnel. This can be screened using tools such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory–2 (MMPI-2) and other psychological measures (Butcher, Dahlstrom, Graham, Tellegen, & Kaemmer, 1989). A number of personality traits have been identified as successful when preselecting astronauts. Galarza and Holland (1999) determined the following ten attributes as key:

Figure 4. Countermeasures to psychological stressors for all stages of spaceflight missions (Kanas & Manzey, 2008).
  1. family separation resilience
  2. performance under stress
  3. group living adaptability (including tolerance and humor)
  4. teamwork
  5. self regulation
  6. motivation
  7. judgment and decision making
  8. conscientiousness
  9. communication (interpersonal and diplomatic), and
  10. leadership capability (described as "decisiveness, flexibility, and ability to motivate others").

Training prior to space missions is another critical aspect of building resilience in astronauts. Many stressors are counteracted[say what?] in this manner. Physical stressors are practiced using space suits underwater, and crew are given opportunities to simulate space conditions (Kanas & Manzey, 2008). Interpersonal stressors are tested as astronauts train together as teams long before they leave Earth. Training in social sensitivity is provided by psycholgogists[spelling?], and strategies (both task oriented and emotion-oriented) are provided to assist in building emotional resilience (Endler, 2004). Training provided to astronauts includes categories such as self care, team work, leadership, cross-cultural understanding and respect, conflict management, situational awareness, and decision and problem-solving skills (ISS Mission Operations Directorate ITCB Training Working Group, 2007).

Example: Training emotional resilience

Popular astronaut Chris Hatfield beautifully describes his experiences building his emotional resilience before his space flight. He details repeatedly training how to overcome both expected, and unexpected hazards, so that in times of crisis during missions he could remain calm, cool and collected. Watch his engaging speech from 2014 here.

During spaceflight[edit]

During spaceflight, one of the key mechanisms for combating the deterioration of emotional resilience is the astronaut's schedule. For example, scheduling adequate amounts of sleep and rest, and maintaining schedules that align with ground control shifts (within circadian rhythm parameters) can effectively stave off most of the negative impacts of sleep deprivation and circadian rhythm disruption (Kanas and Manzey, 2008). Environments are designed for the astronauts to limit stressors and promote resilience. These include making environments user-friendly, allowing for privacy and personal space, opportunities for recreation, and noise reduction (Kanas & Manzey, 2008).

Long duration space flights have been found to have differing levels of impact on mood and emotion over time, through a series of stages[factual?]. This is not dissimilar to analogs recorded of other extreme environments, such as Antarctic winter studies (Kanas and Manzey, 2008). These studies often identify a risk period, termed the "third-quarter-phenomenon" (Hawkes, 2016). The first stage is often characterised by adaption and adjustment, the second by comfort in routine. The "third-quarter" tends to begin just after the halfway point of a mission, and appears to be when astronauts are most affected by low mood, irritability, and asthenia (Kanas & Manzey, 2008). The fourth and final stage occurs just before astronauts return to Earth, and is characterised by increased business, apprehension, and elation at the thought of the return home.

Whilst on mission, astronauts are monitored using self-reporting, as well as observed by ground control (logs, communications, etc.). Prevention strategies are employed to improve emotional resilience. Contact with people on the ground has a significant impact in improving the mood of astronauts. This includes contact with mission control, family and friends, and receiving updates on current events and news (Kanas & Manzey, 2008, Kelly & Kanas, 1994). Crew members can also receive counselling via two-way communication with psychologists on Earth. These are provided as routine on an ongoing basis during the mission (Kanas & Manzey, 2008).

After spaceflight[edit]

Upon return to Earth, astronauts are provided with extensive support in order to readjust. Debriefing as a group and as an individual is mandatory. This may provide astronauts opportunities to repair relationships with other crew members with needed, or to resolve negative experiences from their mission. Sometimes they may need support to grasp changes in outlook after experiencing the overview effect. Astronauts may need support in repairing any emerging family issues which have arisen during their time away. In this instance, psychological support is often offered to family members as well as to the astronauts themselves (Kanas & Manzey, 2008).

What are the implications for life on Earth?[edit]

There is a lot to learn from life in space, including how to boost emotional resilience for individuals and groups alike. Most directly, these missions provide opportunities to learn about extreme environments and team settings that require emotional resilience to support job requirements.

Figure 5. Military families must build emotional resilience to manage separation through deployment.

Military implications[edit]

In the military, pre-selection of soldiers, particularly of those who will undertake specialist tasks such as Special Forces, Navy Seals or Marines, can learn from spaceflight personnel selection strategies (Picano, Williams & Roland, 2006). Similarities include environments with high amounts of stressors, including psychological (such as high risk and separation from family), physical (such as extreme fitness expectations), and habitability stressors (such as needing to perform in extreme environments like deserts, oceans, etc.). Military research has identified effectiveness of training on an individual level, however more targeted resilience training for military personnel, such as that conducted for astronauts, could be beneficial (Meredith, Sherbourne, Gaillot, Hansell, Ritschard, Parker, & Wrenn, 2011).

Exploration implications[edit]

Perhaps one of the strongest similarities noted between space missions and long-term exploration missions (such as antarctic research station postings, and sea voyage exploration), is the presentation of the "third-quarter-phenomenon". This appears to be an effect that presents in situations of long term isolation, confinement of habitat, and prolonged restrictive team environments. Many of the ongoing strategies supporting astronauts through this critical time period can be implemented in these environments. Strategies such as connecting with home (two-way conversations, pre-recorded communications, and news from home), pre-arranged routine psychological support during missions, and post-mission family reintegration support can all be implemented to support exploration teams.

General implications[edit]

There are learnings civilians living on Earth can take from emotional resilience research into spaceflight. In a study conducted by Ritsher, Ihle and Kanas (2005), they confirmed that all astronauts they interviewed that had undertaken spaceflight reported positive experiences to some degree. It could be interpreted then, that despite the numerous and impactful negative stressors, these astronauts maintained some level of emotional resilience.

Most importantly, emotional resilience does not solely rest on biological factors (lacking predisposition to psychopathology, or being born with specific personality attributes). Resilience, for astronauts, is rigorously trained. The implications for this extend to the general population, such as those experiencing natural disasters, or prolonged periods of bed rest and chronic illness (Liu, Zhou, Zhao, Chen, & Chen, 2016). They also provide hope for those experiencing ongoing mental health issues, that may train resilience as a preventative measure (Waugh, & Koster, 2015).


There are major challenges to consider when supporting astronauts to maintain their emotional resilience. The importance of knowing how to combat extreme psychological, environmental, physical and interpersonal stress, can be quantified by the large amount of time, money and research space agencies put towards building resilience in their astronauts. It is possible to build emotional resilience with prior preparation, maintain it with support, and repair it with therapy afterwards. This is true for many settings, even beyond military and exploration applications.

Former astronaut Chris Hadfield, during a TEDTalk he delivered in 2014, articulately described how these learnings can be applied to everyday life. It may be simplistic, but he details a strategy for building emotional resilience;

"Well, next time you see a spiderweb, have a good look, make sure it's not a black widow spider, and then walk into it. And then you see another spiderweb and walk into that one. It's just a little bit of fluffy stuff. It's not a big deal. And the spider that may come out is no more threat to you than a lady bug or a butterfly. And then I guarantee you if you walk through 100 spiderwebs you will have changed your fundamental human behavior, your caveman reaction, and you will now be able to walk in the park in the morning and not worry about that spiderweb -- or into your grandma's attic or whatever, into your own basement. And you can apply this to anything. [...] we are people, and we're taking that ability to adapt and that ability to understand and the ability to take our own self-perception into a new place."

See also[edit]


Antonovsky, A. (1979). Health, stress, and coping. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Butcher, J. N., Dahlstrom, W. G., Graham, J. R., Tellegen, A. M., & Kaemmer, B. (1989). MMPI-2: Manual for administration and scoring. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Butler, A.C., Chapman, J.E., Forman, E.M., & Beck, A.T. (2006). The empirical status of cognitive-behavioral therapy: A review of meta-analyses. Clinical Psychology Review, 26, 17–31.

Caldwell, J. A. (2012). Crew schedules, sleep deprivation, and aviation performance. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(2), 85-89.

Endler, N. S. (2004). The joint effects of person and situation factors on stress in spaceflight. Aviation, space, and environmental medicine, 75(7), C22-C27.

Goodman, M., Carpenter, D., Tang, C. Y., Goldstein, K. E., Avedon, J., Fernandez, N., ... & Siever, L. J. (2014). Dialectical behavior therapy alters emotion regulation and amygdala activity in patients with borderline personality disorder. Journal of psychiatric research, 57, 108-116.

Fredrickson, B.L.: 2001, The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, American Psychologist: Special Issue 56, pp. 218-226.

Fredrickson, B. L. (2004). The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 359(1449), 1367.

Galarza, L., & Holland, A. (1999). Critical astronaut proficiencies required for long-duration spaceflight (SAE Technical Paper 1999-01-2097). Washington, DC: Society of Automotive Engineers

Haghayegh, S. A., Neshatdoost, H. T., Adibi, P., & Shafii, F. (2017). Efficacy of Dialectical Behavior Therapy on Stress, Resilience and Coping Strategies in Irritable Bowel Syndrome Patients. Zahedan Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 19.

Hawkes, C. (2016). Time-dependent mood fluctuations in Antarctic personnel: a meta-analytic review (Doctoral dissertation, University of Tasmania).

ISS Mission Operations Directorate ITCB HBP Training Working Group (2007). Volume I, Human behaviour and performance competency model. Working Group Document, April, 2007. Houston: Johnson Space Center.

Kanas, N., & Manzey, D. (2008). Space psychology and psychiatry (Vol. 22). Springer Science & Business Media.

Kanas, N., Sandal, G., Boyd, J. E., Gushin, V. I., Manzey, D., North, R., ... & Inoue, N. (2009). Psychology and culture during long-duration space missions. Acta Astronautica, 64(7), 659-677.

Liu, Q., Zhou, R. L., Zhao, X., Chen, X. P., & Chen, S. G. (2016). Acclimation during space flight: effects on human emotion. Military Medical Research, 3, 15.

Meredith, L. S., Sherbourne, C. D., Gaillot, S. J., Hansell, L., Ritschard, H. V., Parker, A. M., & Wrenn, G. (2011). Promoting psychological resilience in the US military. Rand health quarterly, 1(2).

Nesse, R. M. (1994). Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders. Ethology and sociobiology, 15(5-6), 247-261.

Padesky, C. A., & Mooney, K. A. (2012). Strengths‐based cognitive–behavioural therapy: A four‐step model to build resilience. Clinical psychology & psychotherapy, 19(4), 283-290.

Pearlin, L. I., & Schooler, C. (1982). The structure of coping. In H. I. McCubbin, A. E. Cauble, & J. M. Patterson (Eds.), Family stress, coping, and social support (pp. 109-135). Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas.

Picano, J. J., Williams, T. J., & Roland, R. R. (2006). Assessment and selection of high-risk operational personnel. Military psychology: Clinical and operational applications, 353-370.

Plutchik, R. and Kellerman, H. Theories of Emotion, Orlando: Academic Press, Inc., 1980.

Ritsher, J. B., Ihle, E. C., & Kanas, N. (2005). Positive psychological effects of space missions. Acta Astronautica, 57(2), 630-633.

Schwartz, R. (1997). Don't look back. Networker, March/April, 40-47.

Suedfeld, P. (2005). Invulnerability, coping, salutogenesis, integration: four phases of space psychology. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 76(6), B61-B66.

Suedfeld, P., & Steel, G. D. (2000). The environmental psychology of capsule habitats. Annual Review of Psychology, 51, 227–253.

Tugade, M. M., & Fredrickson, B. L. (2007). Regulation of positive emotions: Emotion regulation strategies that promote resilience. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8(3), 311-333.

Van Breda, A. D. (2001). Resilience theory: A literature review. Pretoria, South Africa: South African Military Health Service

Waugh, C. E., & Koster, E. H. (2015). A resilience framework for promoting stable remission from depression. Clinical Psychology Review, 41, 49-60.

External links[edit]