Updated: Apr 14, 2020
Twenty-seven scientists were stationed in the Antarctic to conduct research. They were confined for roughly ten months at a time including endlessly long, dark winter months. How did they cope with the isolation?
Not surprisingly, they developed impaired sleep quality and emotional issues. The participants became subtly indifferent to their surroundings and emotionally flat during the harshest winter months. They developed dysfunctional consciousness that was evident when they became absentminded, drifted off, and at times were unaware of their surroundings. Although a controversial finding, some researchers documented impaired thinking ability from prolonged residence in Antarctica.
These behaviors are similar to astronauts training in 520-day Mars mission simulations. Social interactions between crew members declined. There was a state of psychological hibernation and detachment as if a switch had been flipped. Interestingly, detachment is one of the characteristics of burnout. We tune out, we insulate ourselves from stress.
Prior to executive orders to shelter in place, many of us were already in another pandemic: loneliness. Today, you may feel some of these symptoms of isolation.
Approximately 70% of GenZers and Millennials and 50% of Baby Boomers acknowledge being lonely. If we feel marginalized and isolated, we have a higher risk of an upper respiratory infection, experience depression, develop heart disease, and experience an overall impaired ability to think.
Prolonged loneliness is equivalent to smoking or obesity as a risk factor for poor health, as if fear of contracting a deadly virus isn't, and the studies reported in a March 2020 Scientific American article back this up.
Now, we’re not stuck inside a Quonset hut on a bitter wintry tundra or enclosed in a space station hurtling through outer space, although at times you may think so. Or even that today is another endless loop of Groundhog Day (watch the clever movie).
At no time in history have entire cities and communities been under executive orders not to leave their homes except for specific circumstances. For those confined to small apartments in major urban areas, isolation can be a major challenge. For individuals in less congested areas or able to get outside, the isolation is far less draconian.
But we certainly can learn some powerful lessons from astronauts and scientists on these prolonged excursions that may be helpful for many of us right now:
Routines, rituals, and rhythms of the day are absolutely crucial. Get up at the same time and go to bed at the same time. Shave, wash your hair, get dressed in fresh clothing, and have a plan for the day. This does not have to mean writing the great American novel (or maybe it does), but small projects that give you a sense of meaning and accomplishment, even if that’s cleaning out a closet or organizing the family photos (that box you’ve been meaning to get to) or starting an online class.
Physical activity is absolutely crucial. Your gym is closed, but walking outside is still free and open. Walk up and down stairs, do sit-ups, find Zumba workouts online, and download that meditation app and do it every day.
We are social creatures and we are hardwired in our DNA to connect and to relate with others. If you are working at home now, the mouse, the cursor, and the keyboard are always available, so you need to be disciplined. Without a specific start and a specific end time, work efforts can drift into personal and private time. Just checking email can lead you down a rabbit hole at the end of which you have absolutely nothing to show for your efforts. When work is over, close the laptop, close the door, unplug.
We each have a responsibility in this journey to stay at home and venture out only for necessary trips. With the emerging data of the asymptomatic viral shedder, you can take deliberate, decisive steps to avoid contact with other people except for obvious selected circumstances (groceries, medications, care for an isolated elderly person). Wear a mask even if others are not. You are showing your respect for the power of the virus. And respect for the health of others.
24/7 cable news can be seductive, addictive, and weary to the soul. One psychologist wondered if we really need to see the portable mortuary in a parking lot of an inner city hospital? Do we really need to see the anguish over the Wall Street day trader slumped to his knees because of another down turn in the market? We get the picture. We know what is going on, and unless we have a critical need to know, spend your time far more profitably helping yourself or someone else.
Journal about these times, your thoughts, your hopes and dreams. Journaling is a powerful practice, and certainly now it has a place.
Contact your healthcare professional if you feel you are spiraling into an abyss of depression. If you have anger, lash out, or periods of sadness or detachment like the scientists in Antarctica or astronauts. You can expect a telephone or telehealth visit.
You need to be mindful that your routines have been disrupted. Life as we once knew it will never be the same, and we are now in an eerie time and space in anticipation of the new normal. And the ones who survive and thrive during this time of transition—and on the other side of the initial pandemic lockdowns—are those of us who recognize the potential challenges of social isolation and overcome them.
Bottom line: We are not helpless, we have data, and we have credible recommendations to make a difference in our lives and in the lives of our communities. We are together—alone but not isolated.