How to survive isolation, by an expert (and astronauts)

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  Last updated April 21, 2020 at 5:00 pm

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Isolation sucks, but with some expert tips (and advice from astronauts) you can make it more bearable.






Why This Matters: This is how we stop the spread of COVID.




With more countries heading towards societal lock down, increasingly enforced social distancing, and people being ordered into isolation to control the spread of COVID-19, we’re going to be spending a lot more time by ourselves very soon.


That means more time inside, less time socialising, and more anxiety and loneliness. And because humans are inherently social, it can start to have negative effects on your health.




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“It’s the uncertainty that is the issue. We don’t know how long this will be for,” says Associate Professor Jodi Oakman, an expert in human factors from La Trobe University. “And that makes it difficult because people don’t know how long to prepare and put things in place for.”


“And that’s driving a lot of the anxiety (around isolation) at the moment – the uncertainty.”


The way to tackle isolation will be different from person to person, Oakman says, with some finding it more difficult than others.


“Those of us on the more extrovert of the spectrum find it much more difficult to be isolate. Because we derive a lot from other people and those interactions. But the introverts, who are more happy in their own company find it not as difficult.


“It’s the extroverts who will find this more difficult.”




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However, there are some basic things that people can do which will help minimise the impacts of enforced isolation, including that physical isolation doesn’t necessarily mean social isolation.


Physical exercise


Oakman’s number one tip is to exercise.


“Because we’re at home more we’re more sedentary. We’re not catching public transport, or all that incidental exercise you get when you’re at work.


“Even people who aren’t working normally, you’re not out and about doing the usual activity levels. You’ve got to replace that with something.”


Not only is keeping active important for physical health, it helps your mental health too. Aerobic exercise such as including jogging, walking, gardening, and dancing reduce anxiety and depression. It can also just provide a distraction from COVID-19, and keep some social interaction alive.


“Much of the messaging has been to go out and exercise on your own or as a family group. At the moment we can still leave the house to do that, keeping the physical distancing boundaries that we have. So choose activities that mean you’re not in a big group.


“But there are ways to do it if you’re not leaving the house.” Best of all it can be anything your mind comes up with – impromptu dance-offs included.


Mental exercise


It’s important to look after your body, but also make sure you’re looking after your brain too.


“One of the problems with all this information and decision making is that our brains are absolutely firing on all cylinders. And we need to do things to relax them as well – they’re different for different people,” says Oakman.


“It’s about having other tasks that are not related to the relentless messaging about COVID-19. Do something else – read a book, do crosswords, whatever your other activities are that stimulate your brain in different ways.”


However, that means it’s about finding the activity that works for you.




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“For some people it is sitting and watching television, for others it might be reading a book, or craft. Whatever it is it’s different, and it means our brain is being utilised in a different way.


Woman reading book in coronavirus COVID isolation


Set tasks


Oakman and her family created a list of tasks that they would like to do if they were stuck at home.


“It gives us something to work with. If you’re feeling at a loose end – ‘what’s on the list?’ That’s very good for achievements and feeling satisfied that you’ve actually done something.”


“It’s personal to you, and make them something you’ve wanted to do for a while.”


The tasks can be anything ranging from day-to-day tasks, to larger projects. With a lot more free time on our hands, it’s the perfect time to redirect some time to those goals.


Establish routines and boundaries


If you’re working from home, it’s important to set limits between work and recreation, says Oakman. And setting and keeping to a regular routine is helpful for keeping on track.


“It can be easy to just not want to get out of bed. Humans respond well to goals, and it gives you something to work towards.”


Having set routines provides some certainty and stability to your day, as well as setting boundaries between work tasks and recreational tasks.




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“The danger is you need to stop working at some point in the day, because we could work all the time.”


“Say ‘I’m going to stop at a particular time’” – at the moment there needs to be flexibility, but you need to set aside time for yourself, she says. “Otherwise we get none of those other things that are fulfilling. And we need to make sure we have those breaks.


“It might be going and weeding the garden, or making dinner, or whatever it is – the other things you enjoy doing.


“It’ll require forceful boundary setting.”


The technology that lets us connect remotely is great, but we need to make sure we have boundaries and break those connections so we can do other things.


Stay Social


Keeping social interactions alive as much as possible is an important factor for minimising the effects of isolation. While we may have to be physically isolated, keeping social contact is still possible – from a distance.


To Oakman, it’s very important to create opportunities to just chat.




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“In normal daily life you run into people when you’re popping by something, and those things are closing down rapidly at the moment. We need to still have those opportunities outside of that small group we live with.


“And those opportunities can be very limited, especially for people who might be living on their own. So it is up to us to have connections with them, and do it regularly.”


Those interactions could be with your neighbour over your fence, ringing a friend, or video calling.


The benefits of social interactions are well known – acceptance and self-esteem are boosted, which can lead to lower levels of inflammatory chemicals associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other health issues. So much so, people who are lonely have higher blood pressure, and social isolation is considered a major risk factor for mortality in older people.


There is also the mental health benefits of social interaction, lowering depression.


“I’m having a virtual catch up with friends – usually we go out for dinner. We’re not able to do our monthly thing, but we all want to talk to each other and have our normal conversations.”


But while technology has helped keep those social interactions alive, they don’t replicate a normal experience.


“We’re more enabled to have that social interaction,” says Oakman.


“But it doesn’t enable the incidental physical contact we have socially – shake hands, give your mate a hug. Those things are all gone and that’s challenging, there’s no way you can replicate that.


“And you’ve got a portion of the population who aren’t able to do that (connect technologically). Think about… people with dementia – they’re aware of visitors coming in, and hugs from relatives. It’s those things that will be missing.


The Astronauts


Astronauts are particularly adept at dealing with confinement and isolation. With missions to the ISS lasting 6-12 months, and years of training beforehand, they understand the feeling of being stuck in close quarters with only a handful of people to interact with.


Writing recently in the New York Times, Scott Kelly revealed his top tips for lasting a year on the International Space Station.


“Being stuck at home can be challenging. I lived on the International Space Station for nearly a year, it wasn’t easy. When I went to sleep, I was at work. When I woke up, I was still at work. Flying in space is probably the only job you absolutely cannot quit,” he writes.


In that situation, his advice mirrors Oakman’s about the need for setting boundaries between work and downtime. He encourages setting schedules, including making time for fun activities. For astronauts, scheduling of days includes setting a consistent bedtime.


Kelly also recommends picking up or maintaining hobbies, and experiencing nature in some small way – for him and his crewmates on the ISS it involved listening to recordings of bird sounds and the wind through trees.


Stay friendly, communicate well


And while that can help personally, legendary astronaut Peggy Whitson reinforces the need to maintain civility with those close by. “It’s very important to interact well with the people you’re living with. You have to be able to communicate effectively.”




Canadian Chris Hadfield also agrees with Oakman about setting tasks and goals. He starts by understanding the risk from credible sources, and then sets his mission – choosing the goals he wants to accomplish in the immediate and longer terms. He then takes action, and it could be something new, or something familiar. But to him, it could be a chance to do something different from before.


And like Oakman, he uses technology to keep social connections alive. Physical isolation doesn’t need to mean complete social isolation.


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About the Author

Ben Lewis
Ben Lewis is the Editor of Australia’s Science Channel, and a contributor to Cosmos Magazine. He has worked with scientists and science storytellers including Jane Goodall, Dr Karl, Brian Cox, Chris Hadfield, Robert Llewellyn, astronauts, elite athletes, Antarctic explorers, chefs and comedians. Ben has also been involved in public events around Australia and was co-writer, producer and director of The Science of Doctor Who, which toured nationally in 2014 in association with BBC Worldwide Australia & New Zealand. Want more Ben? You can hear him on ABC and commercial radio in Adelaide, regional SA, across NSW, and the ACT. He also speaks at universities around Australia on communicating science to the public. Around the office he makes the worst jokes known to mankind.

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Science and technology is as much a part of our cultural fabric as art, music, theatre and literature. They play a significant role in our daily lives, yet, in a world dependent on science, we often take them for granted. Australia’s Science Channel believes every citizen has a right, and a responsibility, to be informed, and our mission is to create programs to bring that about.


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