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Aerospace Physiology: How Experts Explain It Psychologically

The fundamental study of the effects of high altitude on a person’s body is called aerospace physiology. It includes different pressure and levels of oxygen. It explains the body’s particular function and reaction when there is a different level of altitudes. Usually, it provokes more cardiac output and produces significant erythrocytes. But how can psychologist seem to connect it to mental health? Here is how some experts see it.

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The constant changes in the body from consistent oxygen deprivation cause energy waste. The damage promotes muscle tensions, fatigue, loss of motor skills, and even decreased proper coordination. However, all results still vary from different levels of altitude. That is because the affected physiques are different when in space and ground. That also explains why people exposed inside pressurized cabins experiences loss of muscle growth. Typically, with the exposure in a higher altitude along with a partial carbon dioxide pressure, the oxygen production decreases. The oxygen degradation is what people call hypoxia. Throughout higher altitude, the arterial saturation of oxygen decreases in as much as 70% on a rapid state. It may not sound so alarming for a lot of people, but it caters a hidden effect in the brain. But what exactly is happening in there?

Oxygen Deficiency And The Brain

The brain is the most vital part of the body that uses a large amount of oxygen. Although it only constitutes 2% of the body’s total weight, it consumes approximately 20% of the entire oxygen production in the system. The brain cells depend on oxygen so it can support a better function of the body. It helps in the blood circulation to boost its overall system have more energy. It promotes total function and regeneration.

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However, when the body suddenly does not get enough oxygen, there becomes shortness of breath, and the nonessential body functions begin to shut down. When that happens, the neurons in the brain become affected and can go on a strain condition. The body reacts to that particular moment and attempts to save itself from the loss of energy. That explains why it eventually shows a slow process that people often misinterpret as a weakness. But usually, it is the body’s way of coping with internal dysfunction. Aside from that, when there is a shortage of the supply of oxygen in the brain, one experiences dizziness followed quickly by fainting. In some unfortunate instances, a blackout can occur.

Inadequate oxygen supply to the brain also causes a stroke. There is swelling due to an increased amount of water in it. It leaves pressure that crushes the brain in a slow phase. Loss of oxygen is also responsible for cerebral hemorrhage or the internal bleeding in the brain.

The Minutely Countdown

In some unfortunate instances, when there is not enough oxygenation, the brain causes more than just hallucinations. That is because of 30 to 60 seconds of deprived oxygen results in loss of consciousness. With that 1 minute mark, the brain cells begin to depreciate and die. And in the 3-minute countdown, the more extensive damage in the neurons tends to become permanent. So in 5-minutes, one can expect immediate death. But on that state, the brain is still functioning and putting all of its effort to regeneration. However, in a 10-minute time, even if the brain is still alive, a coma becomes inevitable. So in a 15-minute damage exposure, it becomes nearly impossible to survive.

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Mental Degradation

A lack of oxygen induces shallow breathing, and that results in stress and anxiety. Its severity distorts the proper psychological function where it entirely changes the brain’s overall capability. The damage can manifest in the brain’s structure, size, and roles which eventually target the levels of a person’s genes. From there, it negatively secures the buildup of mental confusion, the inability to follow particular instructions, lack of emotional stability, depression, Alzheimer’s diseases, and other psychological problems. Also, oxygen deprivation to the brain associates in the slow process of learning, memory loss, and nerve cell deterioration due to fewer productions of healthy brain cells.

Takeaway

Aerospace physiology focuses on the physical matter associated with altitude. And since oxygenation gets involved in the topic, mental health also becomes part of it. Honestly, all things that happen in the body have something to do with the brain’s function. Whether it is emotional or physical, the psychological state gets often included in the overall discussion. So when the mental health weakens, all systems will eventually shut down.

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Taking a journey away from your homeland can make you excited and at the same time anxious, the same with the idea of taking a flight away from mother Earth.  Separation anxiety, feeling like you want to jump out of the vehicle and just come back, can jeopardize space mission.  Even the multi-million dollar space vehicle that serves as your residence cannot make you feel at ease and comfortable.  It instead makes you feel isolated and trapped in the dark emptiness that surrounds you. This reality when in the outer space can take your mind to the brink of sanity.

Everyday stress experienced by astronauts can affect the success of their mission.

Dancing Fairy (Visual Hallucination)

Astronauts experience frequent hallucinations.  They report seeing flashes of light that looks like dancing fairies.  They see this even during their busy hours, doing their work, and while in the confines of their sleeping stations.  Scientists make a study regarding this issue and experiments were done which made them think that the dancing fairy effects could be caused by cosmic rays.

Source:  jpl.nsa.gov

Phantom Smell (Olfactory Hallucination)

Crews of the 1976 Russian Soyuz-21 mission have to be brought back to the Earth earlier because of concern of leak or technical problems.  The crews smell something while aboard the space station (Salyut-5), but when being checked upon their return, no odor or any technical issues were found.

During the investigation, it seems that crews reported experiencing psychological problems and had some interpersonal issues.   This led NASA to consider that the incident was probably caused by hallucination.

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Exhaustion and disagreement caused the crews of the Skylab 4 mission to switch off their radio and ignore NASA for a day.   They just watch Earth pass by.

Incidents like the above make scientists study the possible effects of being confined in simulated missions.  How being in isolation for months to more than a year affect stress level and result in a myriad of psychological issues.

Scientists observe how the brain functions when on a mission outside of Earth’s atmosphere.  They found that some of the primary function (task switching, attention, body coordination, and problem-solving) do not work well while an astronaut is in space.  It is assumed that this could be due to the limited physical activity.  Even when on Earth, reduced physical activity could over time affect mental abilities.

Gravity could also play a role in the changes in brain activity.  Being in gravity-free space affect blood flow.  Compared to when on Earth, oxygen supply to the brain might not be as efficient due to the effect of gravity.

Keeping Sanity In Space

Aerospace psychiatry serves as the mental health support for spacemen.

Watching astronauts from our television set make me look at them to be the best of the best, in mental intelligence and physical fitness.  They are the men picked from the best selection of great men.  But even them are not exempted from losing their mind for a while when not in the confine of their comfort zone (the Earth).

Upon coming back to Earth, noticeable signs of psychological distress from a prolonged time spent on the mission, living in tight quarters, spurred the establishment of space psychology.  Teams of psychiatrists ensure to monitor, support, and re-establish psychiatric well-being of astronauts while and after the mission.

Life in space is harsh compared to the stress and loneliness we experience living on Earth.  Well-fit astronauts even admitted that with their experience, they discovered that they are not psychologically prepared to be in such a mission.  Hallucinations happen, anxiety and depression creep in due to isolation, lack of social communication and leisure activities, and (could be) gravity effect.

Life After Space Travel

Astronauts who make it safe home receive psychological support and help to adjust again to their life on Earth’s ground.  They may decide not to fly back, or it may take them some time to determine if they would want to leave Earth again or do something else.

Keeping sanity while out of Earth’s grounds is hard to maintain, that behavioral and psychological support must be considered.  Having some form of activities, hobbies, entertainment can help them adjust, unwind, and de-stress.  Keeping the astronauts’ sound mind is essential when being sent to outer space to make their mission a success.

 

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