Science, History, Technology and Wellbeing

Dr Beth Healey: My Top Ten Tips for Coping with Social Distancing

26/05/2020

A few years ago I had the chance to overwinter at Concordia Station in Antarctica for the European Space Agency (ESA) where I was researching the effects of isolation on the crew. Concordia is of interest to ESA because the crew there are completely isolated for nine months of the year, even in case of emergency. This is because of the extreme environment with temperatures consistently around -80C and 105 days of total darkness during the wintertime. It’s believed that platforms like Concordia will help inform us of some of the challenges astronauts on future long duration spaceflight missions may face. I didn’t ever think that my experience or the research we were doing in Antarctica would ever become so relevant to our daily lives as it has unfortunately become.

I’m often asked if some people are more suited to isolation than others, and while there are definitely some personality types which are better suited, I really do believe that there are strategies we can use and things we can all learn to make isolating and social distancing that little bit easier! For this reason I would like to share with you some of the ‘top tips’ I’ve found useful.

  1. Keep your MOTIVATIONs clear. Although this is a situation none of us would have chosen, I believe we can all think of reasons why it’s important to social distance. Whenever I face a challenge I try to keep one simple, and if possible, personal motivation in mind which helps bring clarity during the tough times. For example, currently, when I feel fed up of social distancing and can’t face another zoom pub quiz I remind myself that doing so will keep my grandma safe and in turn everything becomes much easier.

 

  1. NORMALISE what you can. I’m not a great believer in explorer beards (which is perhaps just as well!). I think that it’s important to try and normalise what you can in a new situation. If you’re someone who usually straightens their hair and puts on makeup then continue to do so, it will make you feel normal. Focusing on what you can control makes the things you can’t feel more manageable and less overwhelming. ‘Control the controllable’.
  1. SET GOALS – from learning a new language to working on your six pack, now is the time! Remember to be kind to yourself and make your goals realistic. Try to break it down and have ‘tick features’ along the way so you can enjoy a sense of achievement and help keep you motivated.

 

  1. Consider your HABITAT and make sure everyone has their own personal space. Paradoxically I found I wasn’t lonely in Antarctica, but that the biggest challenge was getting away from others! Having private space makes you feel less claustrophobic. For example, in Antarctica our bedrooms were private, but if you don’t have much room then get creative and consider making a den or putting the garden shed out of bounds. Even if you dont use it very much, psychologically knowing that you’ve got space can be really refreshing!

 

  1. Put dates in the DIARY. While we don’t have the luxury of knowing how long we are likely to be social distancing for, what we do know is that its much more likely to be a marathon than a sprint. Typically, Antarctic overwinters find the ‘third quarter’ the most challenging. This is because at this point you have lost the novelty of a new experience but it still feels like a very long time until the end of the mission. Try to pencil things into a diary to look forward to and keep you motivated when things start to get tough.

 

  1. Science suggests that it takes someone around ten days to adapt to a new environment. Having a ROUTINE has been shown to expedite this process and normalise a new situation much more quickly. It can also help maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
  1. Remember you’re not ALONE. Our role in our global community is perhaps more important than it ever has been. We are all in this together and no one can fight this virus alone. From research and education to social distancing we have never experienced such a life changing global challenge affecting everyone as we face today.

 

  1. SELF CARE. Look after yourself, exercise, eat healthily and get fresh air (where possible). It cannot be under-estimated how important this is for our mental health and physical wellbeing. But, remember, social distancing is a challenge and it is going to be tough, so don’t be too hard on yourself – the odd evening on the sofa watching movies and eating chocolate is ok too!

 

  1. KNOW YOURSELF and KNOW YOUR TEAM. Be aware that individuals react in different ways. For example, when I’m really upset I go really quite and can find it difficult to talk! Others can become louder and confrontational. By recognising how those that are close to you react you can often pick up on how they’re feeling even perhaps before they realise themselves! This can help you offer support when they need it most.

 

  1. And finally, its important not to forget that this experience can also present OPPORTUNITY. Astronauts often talk about the ‘overview effect’ and what they are describing is the chance to look back down at earth through the Cupola window with a new and fresh perspective. While unfortunately none of us are likely to go to space during this pandemic, I think that it does give us the chance to step back from our normal routines and re-evaluate where we go next. While the world we step back into may not be the same as the one we left, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, it could give us a chance to move forward and return to a better future.

 

Dr Beth Healey is an emergency medicine doctor. As part of medical and logistical support teams she has worked in a number of extreme and remote environments including Svalbard, Siberia, Greenland and the North Pole.

 

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