Still feeling isolated? Apply these tactics that astronauts use to cope with life in space
Learn tips on how to deal with life from an astronaut, a researcher living in remote Antarctica and a biospherian who lived in a fully enclosed, self-sustaining ecosystem that was sealed off for two years.
Cases of COVID-19 are climbing and while vaccines are on the horizon, even the most optimistic timelines put them months away.
And celebrating with family during the festive holidays, normally a bright spot to look forward, just isn’t the same this year.
But there are ways to steel yourself for such a dark set of circumstances. In fact, some people have been through all of that and then some.
Take, for instance, an astronaut who spent nearly a year in space. Or the station leader of a research outpost in Antarctica. Or one of the eight people sealed inside the artificial ecosystem Biosphere 2 for two years in the early 1990s.
The New York Times spoke with these people to get advice on coping with life in extended isolation – and how to deal with not quite being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Adaptation and expectation management are key.
JUST A FEW HUNDRED MILES AWAY, BUT A WORLD APART
For 328 days between March 2019 and February 2020, the NASA astronaut Christina Koch was floating 250 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, setting the record for the longest continuous time spent in space by a woman.
An astronaut since 2013, Koch, 41, was trained to deal with long-term isolation and constantly changing circumstances, but there isn’t exactly training on what to do when the world you come back to is wholly different than the one you left.
But that’s not to say she wasn’t equipped.
“One of the qualities that astronauts develop is adaptability and managing expectations,” Koch said. “And I think that we really honed the skill of being able to be okay with whatever comes down the road, and to just adapt our hopes and dreams to what that situation is and make the best of it.”
While aboard the ISS, Koch and her crew mates watched the early days of the pandemic unfold, but they didn’t know how deeply things would change.
She returned to Earth in February, but just as she was finishing physical rehabilitation and ready to embark on the many plans she had made, Koch had to trade one type of isolation for another.
“Right when I was ready to go back out into the world, it got shut back down,” she said.
To be clear: Being stuck at home inside with all of the comforts – and seamless deliveries – we’re used to isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison to spending nearly a year in space.
But many of the emotions and psychological bruises we’re dealing with right now are actually similar to what astronauts experience in space, Koch said. And the strategies and tactics of dealing with those experiences can be quite transferable.
For instance: Koch said that learning to accept and be comfortable with unpredictability is something that is built into astronaut training.
During her time on the ISS, Koch said, there were days she would go to sleep knowing her schedule for the next day, only to wake up and have it entirely rearranged.
And even if a day’s schedule didn’t have any surprises, at any moment something could go wrong and the entire crew would have to adapt – a mind-set she uses while quarantining at home.
“What you can control is how you react to that situation,” she said. “What you can control is whether or not you let yourself go down a bad mental path or not.”
In fact, while on the ISS, Koch was surprised by an extension to her mission by about five months. So in one sense, she said, she has been here before.
“I had to shift my thinking from ‘It’s a marathon not a sprint’ to ‘It’s an ultramarathon, not a marathon’,” she said. “In the pandemic, that’s what I have reframed. When lockdown started it was going to be a two-week pause, and now it’s going to last through the spring.”
Koch said a key skill she uses from her time in space is learning how to stay connected to loved ones when we can’t be physically present.
While in space, for example, Koch, “ran” a half-marathon in Glacier National Park with her friends; at the same time they were running on the course, Koch ran the 13.1 miles on her space treadmill.
“You have to be creative in how you stay relevant in the lives of your loved ones,” she said. “Staying relevant means you don’t just communicate occasionally by email, you do things that almost feel like you’re close.”
As for all those plans she had in store? This time she is just going to wait and see.
“I’m a big fan of just setting expectations in my own mind to always err on the side of being pleasantly surprised,” she said, “rather than being disappointed.”
“NOT EVERY DAY CAN BE SUNSHINE AND PENGUINS”
Your average day this year probably looks a little bit like David Knoff’s. He drags himself out of bed around 7am, looks at the weather, then sips a latte while planning his day.
He makes his morning commute – a very short trip from where he sleeps to where he works –and catches up on emails for a few hours before attending online meetings.
Mealtimes are always the same, and the faces around the dinner table never change, except for the occasional extreme haircut or overgrown beard. To unwind, he might have some tea or a beer and reminisce about what life used to be like.
But there’s one key difference: Knoff lives in perhaps the most remote place on the planet – and his most exciting evening lately involved penguins.
Since November 2019, Knoff has led a team of 24 people at Davis Station, a permanent research outpost in Antarctica run by the Australian Antarctic Division.
The yearly average high temperature there is around -7 degrees Celsius, and during the darkest days of winter – typically from May to July – there are some weeks when there are zero hours of daylight.
“The darkness had more of an impact on mood and energy than many of us expected, for a few months during the depths of winter the sun barely made it above the horizon (or not at all),” Knoff, 35, wrote in an email.
To get through a bleak winter, Knoff said, it’s important to change with your surroundings and train yourself to learn to make the best of a tough situation. “It is surprising how well you adapt to your surroundings and conditions,” he said.
Not long ago, Knoff was unexpectedly marooned in a field hut for four nights with another expedition member after a blizzard got very bad, very fast, and their vehicle broke down.
Stuck inside with nothing to do but wait out the storm, he caught up on a collection of 1970s literature left in the hut long ago. He also cooked and drank tea with his teammate.
“It was the longest I’d been without Wi-Fi in years,” he said. However, “in the end, it will end up being one of my fondest memories of my time here due to the truly unique situation of being that cut off from the rest of civilisation yet strangely safe and warm with little to worry about other than the weather.”
Still, even a place as isolated as Antarctica hasn’t been entirely untouched by the pandemic. While the continent hasn’t confirmed a single case of the virus, Knoff and his team were forced to extend their stay by four months, which, he said, “brought with it multiple challenges and an emotional roller coaster.”
It “feels like we have just endured the toughest game of life we could have ever imagined, and then the game has been sent into overtime,” he said.
The goal now is for everyone to “look inside themselves to dig out the motivation and resilience to make sure that as a team we make the most of the next few months and return safely to our friends and families back home”, he said.
And about that exciting recent evening: A huddle of Emperor penguins waddled onto the station’s beach while half of the team happened to be outside – a good reminder to take the good with the bad.
“Not every day can be sunshine and penguins,” Knoff wrote in an email. “You will have bad days/weeks/months, and the highs and lows will oscillate faster and higher as the months roll on, but stay focused on the positive and have a goal in sight.”
He added: “Although not entirely accurate during an Antarctica winter, the sun will always come up tomorrow!”
LIFE IN A BUBBLE TURNED PRESSURE COOKER
You’ve probably had a fight or two with your family or roommates during quarantine. But at least the house didn’t break out into warring factions.
That’s what happened in Biosphere 2, a fully enclosed, self-sustaining, three-acre ecosystem in Arizona in which eight people lived sealed off for exactly two years from September 1991 to September 1993, conducting one of history’s most ambitious – and weirdest – science experiments. (The first biosphere, in case you’re wondering, is the one you currently live in.)
Biosphere 2 had everything: Pygmy goats, a fog desert, feral pigs, Japanese silky bantams, a tropical rainforest and … a lot of conflict, according to Jane Poynter, one of the eight people sealed inside.
“I wish I could tell you it was a happy success story,” said Poynter, laughing as she recalled those warring factions.
Poynter, who designed and was responsible for Biosphere 2’s farm system during the mission, is now the founder and co-chief executive of a space tourism company called the Space Perspective.
“We broke into two factions of four and four,” she said. “It turns out eight is the worst number we could’ve chosen because you break into two factions of four that are very stable.”
Her theory of why tensions rose so high? “When you’re enclosed for a long period of time, you come face to face with yourself.”
A shared sense of mission brought the factions together to complete work that needed to be done, despite the awful tension and awkwardness, Poynter said.
None of the eight thought of abandoning Biosphere 2, whose chief financial backer was a Texas oil billionaire, because they could see the importance of the bigger picture.
Fighting aside, Poynter noted another effect that affects anyone in long-term isolation, whether it’s an astronaut, a researcher in Antarctica, a biospherian or just an average citizen wondering when this will be over: The third-quarter phenomenon.
You’ve felt this before. You’re past the halfway point of something but nowhere near the end, and then you start to drag.
It’s the “decline in performance during the third quarter of missions in isolated, confined and extreme environments, regardless of actual mission duration,” according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments.
That’s not to say we’re necessarily in the third quarter of the pandemic, but the recent promising news of vaccines has given us hope that the end may be in sight.
“We are all going to feel like we’ve had it up to here with this, and that’s normal,” Poynter said. “The only thing I can say is, be patient.”
By Tim Herrera © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.