Much of the world is having to learn fast about self-isolation. What tips can we glean from those who do it for a living?I

Millions of us are socially distancing around the globe in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus and no longer have to imagine what it’s like to spend the vast majority of the day in our homes. As we grapple with our new routines, what advice can we glean from people who have already spent months in isolation?

Stay busy and make a schedule

On the ISS, astronauts’ days are scheduled down to five-minute increments with time for experiments, maintenance, conference calls, meals, working out and more. But even at home, Lindgren says it’s helpful to stay busy with meaningful work, even if it’s not your usual gig. “If you’re able to work from home it’s a gift,” he says. “Many people don’t have that opportunity. But finding some other meaningful work will help the time go fast. It is one of the blessings of being in the space station. The work can make six or nine months go very quickly.”

Lindgren, who is currently socially distancing at home with his wife and three children, says he talks to his kids weekly about what they want to accomplish and make sure to carve time out for it in addition to their regular schoolwork.

Dunn suggests breaking the day into parts with transitions like working out or going for a walk. At Hi-Seas, the crew would end the workday and transition into leisure time via a group work out. “When you work from home it’s easy to end up constantly working and never breaking,” she says.

Don’t dwell on the negative and forgive yourself for making mistakes

Lindgren recalls spending three hours fixing an exercise machine on Expedition 44/45. He got all the way to the end and realised the bracket he was left with didn’t fit. It turned out he had installed something that was intended for the left side on the right side of the machine and had to undo and redo all his work.

I was really down on myself and folks on the ground gave me great advice. They asked for feedback on how to make the instructions clearer so that everyone could get something from my mistake,” he says. “They told me not to feel bad about it and move on, otherwise it would compromise my ability to do other things. That attitude served us well on the space station and I think it’ll serve us well here too.”

So, if you forget to buy toilet paper at the store or burn dinner, don’t sweat it, he says.

Communicate expectations to your crew

It’s important to manage expectations, both your own and those of your crew or the people you are living with, says Lindgren. And to regularly talk about what those expectations are.

In the Hi-Seas habitat, Dunn’s crew had a schedule for splitting shared household duties. They also set aside time each Sunday to debrief how the previous week had gone.

Do fun things with your crew but also spend time by yourself

“Like our homes are now, the space station was our lab but also our home. So we had to find ways to have fun together. But it’s also important to read your team. Sometimes people need time alone to decompress,” says Lindgren.

On the Russian segment of his mission, the crew ended their work week with a group dinner. On the US segment, they had movie nights. “We would bring little treats to those," says Lindgren. "On the weekend we spent time coming up with games we could only do in weightlessness. That was a lot of fun and some of my fondest memories.”

On Earth, Lindgren’s family tries to schedule in social activities like a weekly TV show. “Anything that’s different from work that you can look forward to like staying in touch with loved ones over video conferencing – can be really helpful.”

For those finding themselves spending more time than they ever expected to with the people they live, Dunn reminds us to schedule alone time too. "It’s fine to say I need 30 minutes on my own to do some mediation or journaling or just not have to talk to someone.”

Work out

It’s easy to motivate yourself to work out when your ability to walk when you return to Earth is on the line. But there are still lessons we can learn from the space station as we distance ourselves at home.

“We had two hours a day to work out, it was carved out into our schedule and expected that we were going to do it. That made it as easy as you could ask for,” says Lindgren.

Still, Lindgren, who’s now doing a group workout with fellow astronauts once a week over video chat, says we can make it easier for ourselves on Earth by removing as many barriers as possible. For example, schedule a specific time to work out, queue an internet workout onto your computer in advance, and prep any gear or clothes you need in advance.

“Exercise is critically important,” he says. “Especially when we have this underlying stress because of the current situation, exercise provides a physical and psychological release.”

Expect conflict to happen

It was around the six-month mark on Dunn’s mission that people started getting more confrontational and more likely to air their frustrations. Researchers call this the “third quarter phenomenon”, when people completing missions in challenging conditions, like astronauts, report a drop in morale.

“The third quarter phenomenon can start around the halfway point,” says Dunn, “People begin to feel there isn’t really an end in sight and the novelty of everything is gone. You might need to find some intrinsic or extrinsic motivation to keep you on good behavior and on better terms with the people you live with.”

She says that people tend to isolate themselves further in the third quarter too, which perpetuates their low mood. So it might be critical to keep those regular check-ins with friends and family, even if you no longer feel like it.

Though people are trying to predict when our need to socially distance might end, no one knows for sure how long it will last. So it’s hard to predict when our individual frustrations might surface. When conflict arises, Dunn suggests refocusing on your own habits and modelling good behavior.

Perhaps that’s why we should mentally prepare for the long haul

“The most important difference between our experience and what is going on globally today is that we volunteered for our mission,” says Lindgren. “We knew what we were getting into and had the opportunity to prepare for it. Unfortunately, our communities have been thrown into this without much preparation so they’re having to learn to deal with the stress on the fly.”

Astronauts also know how long their missions will last, and any changes can be hard to cope with.

Lindgren suggests it might be smart to mentally prepare for the long haul and be pleasantly surprised by any reduction of restrictions. “It’s not as hard on you as the other way around.”

Remind yourself of the big picture

Our mission on Earth comes down to the health and safety of your loved ones and the community at large, says Lindgren. “If you think about working together to solve a crisis rather than be at odds with one another, the benefits are spectacular.”

He says that means we have to prioritise self-care, or doing things that prepare us to accomplish things as though we’re on a mission, like getting exercise and sleeping and eating well. This can help the people we’re home with but also the community at large.

“It would pay huge dividends if we look at this crisis as a united group rather than as individuals. Within our households we’re all crew mates, but we’re also crewmates within our communities, countries and the global community.”

So, if you have two packs of toilet paper, and see somebody scrambling for one at the market, give them one, he suggests. “Little expressions of love like that can go a long way.”

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