An Astronaut’s Guide To Coping With Isolation

Photo: Courtesy of NASA.
COVID-19 is still in the atmosphere. Although lockdown is easing and shops, restaurants and pubs will open from 4th July in England, the deadly disease has killed more than 400,000 people worldwide — and counting. As a result, many of us have been isolating in our homes for months. There's light at the end of the tunnel, but on a whole, we're continuing to spend a ton of time inside. Alone. 
Recently, I realised it had been a full month since I’d had direct contact with anyone outside of my family — no cashiers, no delivery people, no Uber drivers. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom, the thought crossed my mind that I felt like an astronaut: stuck inside a little space, with only the same few faces to see in real life, everyone else appearing on a screen. My next thought was, I bet an astronaut could give some pretty solid tips on coping with quarantine.
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So I reached out to NASA, who put me in touch with Lieutenant Colonel Anne McClain. McClain spent 204 days on an interstellar adventure during NASA Expeditions 58/59. She walked in space for a total of 13 hours and eight minutes. The Washington state native also didn’t get to eat at her favourite restaurants or hug her siblings from December 2018 to June 2019, the stretch she spent away from Earth — and coincidentally, roughly the same exact span of time that we've known about the coronavirus, but one year later.
Of course, McClain was in space, living out her life’s dream. Sheltering in place in a cramped apartment with no air conditioning while hundreds of thousands of people are dying from a powerful virus is a different experience altogether. Still, the period of isolation McClain experienced amongst the stars prepared her for the coronavirus quarantine in some unique ways.
We asked McClain about what helped her get through her isolation while in the space station, what she did to get back to normal once she was back on Earth, and what advice she'd give to all of us as we continue to live in a pandemic.

Admit when you need help

Before being launched towards the heavens on the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft, McClain had an advantage many of us Earthlings did not: She went through conflict resolution and sensitivity training. “In space, you’re not just working with people, you’re living with them,” McClain tells Refinery29. “When you’re up there for six months, you’re going to have days you’re frustrated or upset.” And you can't just walk away. Or at least, not quickly. Even if you’re leaving for a sanctioned space walk, it takes 45 minutes just to put on a spacesuit.
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Surprisingly, one of the main lessons she took from her training was about asking for help. “We have to really step away from our ego,” McClain recalls. “It’s okay not to be okay. Astronauts are all very high performing individuals professionally. But we get up there, and it’s like: ‘Hey, we’re not perfect.’ We’re going to have good days and bad days, and we’ve got to talk about them. We have to be able to look at someone and go, 'You know what, I’m not okay today, so I’m going to need you to watch my back.' It’s the ability to do that that keeps the crews going.” 
When you're cooped up with someone for weeks on end, being able to communicate that you're in a bad mood, or that you need something specific from your quaran-crew is a total game-changer. Think of yourselves as members of the same team, not warring nations.
Photo: Courtesy of NASA.

Lean into relationships

“When I was in space, one of my siblings said, ‘I talked to you more when you were in space than I would normally,'" McClain says. "I got closer to my family.” Many people here on Earth have echoed this sentiment: They're making more of an effort to talk to friends and family via Zoom or FaceTime, and as a result are spending more time together — and feel closer to one another — than they did before the pandemic. “What strikes me is that relationships tend to get strengthened when we start stripping away all the distractions,” McClain says. 
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She adds that for folks who have been quarantining in the same house or apartment, this time spent together can make for a lasting bond. “When I was up on the space station, I got closer to my crew mates in a short period of time than a lot of folks that I’ve worked with for years,” she says. Even if you don't consider your roomies your besties, after going through this experience with them, you may always have a special connection.

Focus on small joys 

The coronavirus has been terrifying. People were laid off. If they held jobs that were deemed essential, they were required to put their lives at risk every day. Loved ones died. Some folks got dangerously sick themselves. Those with pre-existing conditions or without access to health care lived in fear.
Although it can be hard to stay positive with everything going on, McClain says she’s still focusing on showing gratitude for the small things, such as walking her dog Apollo every evening. Even just feeling a cool breeze blow through her hair is something to be cherished. “Wind was something we didn’t have up there," she says. “I appreciate it now. 

Remember: the first few weeks are the hardest

“It was a little bit — okay, a lot a bit — of an adjustment to get used to working from home,” McClain says of her current set-up. “But one of the things I learned in space was that change is hardest right when it’s happening.” The first week she spent on the space station, 248 miles above the Earth, was the hardest, McClain says. She was orbiting the Earth 15 times a day. Every 45 minutes, she’d see a magnificent sunset or sunrise. Her sense of time was warped, and her days were often tightly scheduled for her by NASA. But once you get used to it, it’s okay," she says. 
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When she returned from space, getting back into the swing of her regular routine was another tricky period of time, she says. She had to remember how much things weighed, what it felt like to hop out of bed with gravity pulling at you, and when to do laundry. “It wasn’t just a happy, easy homecoming,” she says.
McClain went through a mini-repeat of these experiences during the onset of the pandemic. "When we started the quarantine, it was pretty hard for me," she says. "But based on my experience up in space, I figured, in a few weeks I’ll get used to this too. It becomes your new normal,"
What eased all of these transitions? Giving herself a break. That's what McClain suggests we all do when quarantine ends everywhere officially. You may be feeling a fresh wave of anxiety and antsiness as you anticipate your schedule changing yet again. It may be tough to slip into our new "old routine." Accept the strange feelings as normal, try to create little schedules for yourself to help ease the transition, and remind yourself that the first few weeks will be the hardest.

Hold onto the camaraderie

From the space station, McClain could see about 95% of the planet from her window on any given day. She remembers seeing natural disasters that would ravage different parts of the world. "I was humbled by how big hurricanes are,” she remembers. “How much of the globe they take up, and how they affect everybody the same way. When we’re on Earth and we hear about a storm, we always ask, 'Well, where is it? What country is it in?' It’s almost like, 'Whose problem is it? It’s on the other side of the world? It doesn’t affect me.' But up in space, you just go, 'Oh my gosh, these natural disasters don’t see borders. They affect every human being the same.'” McClain has tried to bring this point of view home with her.
The coronavirus pandemic could inspire a similar shift in perspective for all of us. The virus doesn't see borders either. We've all had to battle it together, as a global community. Imagine how different the world could be if we were able to retain this feeling as we left our isolation. The people you pass on the streets are your teammates, not strangers. The world might feel a little friendlier.
“In space,” McClain says, “you get the sense that we’re all in this together.”

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