Going solo: Jessica Watson's 'mental toughness'

Stepping off the pink yacht she sailed around the world by herself for seven months, teenage sailor Jessica Watson seemed torn between two worlds.

Overcome with emotion at being reunited with her family, there were tears of joy as she placed one foot on dry ground.

But as she looked back towards her yacht, a flash of panic washed over her face.

SOLO MISSION: Health psychologist Megan Varlow credits Jessica Watson's ability to manage 210 days at sea by herself - without losing her mind - to "very strong mental toughness''
SOLO MISSION: Health psychologist Megan Varlow credits Jessica Watson's ability to manage 210 days at sea by herself - without losing her mind - to "very strong mental toughness''

Did she fear the reality of returning to society after experiencing so much solitude?

About three hours before she docked at the Sydney Opera House steps, she told a television station via a live satellite feed she was savouring her last moments out at sea.

"I can't believe I'm heading in,'' she said.

"There's so many things I'm going to miss about being out here.''

Two days earlier, she had listed on her blog some of the things she expected to miss.

"I'm going to miss doing things at my own pace and singing at the top of my voice without clearing the room,'' she wrote.

"I'm going to miss the kick I get from overcoming challenges by myself, flying along in the dark ...

"A new sunset every night and the time I always take to watch it.''

The 12-metre waves and multiple knockdowns appeared to have been forgiven and forgotten, and incredibly, loneliness never seemed to be an issue throughout her voyage.

Health psychologist Megan Varlow credits Jessica's ability to manage 210 days at sea by herself - without losing her mind - to "very strong mental toughness''.

While astronauts are screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation before they are sent into space, mental toughness is a state of mind that can be developed.

"The concept of mental toughness is exactly what it sounds like - someone's ability to mentally deal with challenges, isolation being one,'' says Ms Varlow, who is based at the University of Technology, Sydney.

People who have high levels of mental toughness deal better with adversity and the consequences of their decisions.

"They can handle higher levels of pressure, they can handle having to make important decisions by themselves without support from others,'' she told AAP in an interview.

"They do less worrying about the 'what ifs', than someone with lower levels of mental toughness.

"Because of that, they are able to not necessarily make the best decision, but they can live with the decisions that they do make, which is the important thing.''

Mental toughness aside, former Australian Institute of Sport psychologist Geoff Bond says some personality types are better suited to withstanding prolonged periods of isolation than others.

An extrovert, he says, would not do well sailing around the world on their own.

"Most extroverts need social contact, and have relatively shorter concentration spans,'' he says.

"They need to be involved in lots of activities. I think unless you are a highly disciplined extravert you would struggle a bit with that sort of exercise.

"So someone who tends more towards introversion, who is happy to spend time with themselves, being introspective, is the type of personality that lends itself a bit more to that.''

To stay sane throughout a prolonged period in isolation, Mr Bond says structure and routine are also important.

"You would have to have some pretty standard routine that you executed at particular times each day,'' he says.

"Whether they be check lists on your equipment or whatever, you would need to have a pretty well prepared routine. You would certainly want to have things to keep yourself occupied.''

Former world marathon champion Robert De Castella says he found it interesting that Jessica Watson revealed on her blog that she found quiet nights more of a challenge than huge seas.

"I was amazed she said the most difficult times were the quiet, still nights when her imagination would run wild,'' he told AAP.

Of his own experience, Mr De Castella says staying focused, rather than day-dreaming to distract himself from the pain, helped while running a marathon.

"In the early stages of a marathon, you can afford to disassociate,'' he said.

"But in the later stages, when you are physically exhausted, you have to really concentrate on what is going on.

"I'm sure there were periods when Jessica was able to let her imagination run wild and relax.

"Other times she would have had to have had all her wits and her attention on what might or could happen.

"And those times go very quickly. When you are under pressure to survive or perform, time goes very quickly.''

As for the loneliness of the long distance runner, Mr De Castella is quick to debunk the concept.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with spending time by yourself,'' he says.

"It's a very much under-rated luxury. It's a wonderful thing.''

"I sometimes wonder if you can't spend time with yourself, how do you expect other people to?"

Choosing to be isolated, as Jessica Watson did when she circumnavigated the globe by herself, would have greatly contributed to her being able to handle such a situation, says Ms Varlow.

In adverse situations where people have not chosen to be isolated, the battle for sanity has been an immense challenge.

Trapped miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb were given an iPod player to keep their spirits up while they trapped almost a kilometre underground at Beaconsfield gold mine, Tasmania, in 2006.

Journalist Terry Anderson was not afforded such kindness when he was held in solitary confinement as a hostage in Lebanon during the 1980s.

After a month, he found himself disintegrating.

"The mind is a blank,'' he wrote in his memoir, The New Yorker, reported last year.

"Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorised? There's nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind's gone dead.''

When his captors moved him to cells shared with other hostages, he could read and concentrate for longer periods, avoid hallucinations and better control his emotions.

When he was returned to solitary confinement, he felt his mind slipping away again.

In the 1990s, Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian found a third of 200 prisoners serving time in solitary confinement in US prisons developed acute psychosis with hallucinations.

They were unable to endure solitary confinement without mental breakdowns, he concluded.

While Jessica Watson appeared composed but drained as journalists grilled her before she left Sydney Heads in October last year on whether she was up for sailing around the globe by herself, she certainly remained level headed during and immediately after the experience.

"I don't consider myself a hero. I'm an ordinary girl who believed in her dream,'' she said after making land last Saturday (May 15).

"You don't have to be someone special to achieve something amazing.

"You've just got to have a dream, believe in it and work hard.''

AAP