Few things we’ve learnt from astronauts about coping with lockdown

Since the pandemic hit and restrictions were put in place, people around the world have been sort of stuck at home with the same repetitive routines. We wake up, exercise, make ourselves a coffee, work at our kitchen tables while watching our children, go to sleep and do it all over again the next day. 

There was this enormous uncertainty about what was going to happen to our society from the break of the pandemic up to when the vaccine came into view. Now even with vaccination in full force, we still have uncertainty around when we would be able to fully reopen and have to deal with factors like vaccine hesitancy and the emergence of new variants. 

So the last 18 months or so have been tough for many of us. How exactly are we going to keep ourselves mentally healthy in the coming months? To help us alleviate some of the stress and psychological tolls, let’s hear from Dr Nathan Smith – a Research Fellow in Psychology, Security and Trust from the University of Manchester in the UK, who did a podcast with the Guardian back in January. 

The participants in his research are astronauts in international space stations, Arctic and Antarctic research scientists, even submariners who elect to head into isolation and undergo highly stressful situations. 

Let’s take inspiration from them and extrapolate some of the lessons about how they keep themselves positive and motivated while being cooped up. 

According to Nathan, it comes down to 3 rules or psychological needs:

  1. People need to feel in control, to have a sense of autonomy 
  2. People need to feel competent and effective at what they’re doing
  3. People need to have some kind of trust, relationship and connection with other people

Applying these principles across different contexts can give us some ideas on how to alleviate anxiety and keep ourselves motivated in the unique pressure-cooker environment of the pandemic. 

Breaking up your experiences

These groups do lots of things to try to break up their experiences. They celebrate little milestones, little wins and really make a big deal out of it. There’s a range of activities such as putting on theatre shows, using arts to entertain themselves, video nights, game nights, playing board games and putting aside time to eat together.

Ultimately, it’s about being creative with what we have and purposefully trying to find things to celebrate or things we can enjoy.

“When you have these regular bursts of positive emotions, it broadens and builds your repertoire to stay happy and healthy.” said Nathan.

Team cohesion

These groups spend time to sit down, write shared goals or shared values before going into an extreme place. As a group, they want to be kind to each other and think about other people and be explicit about managing and resolving conflicts effectively. They’re very aware that this is an important factor, not only to keep everyone connected and inspired but also for survival in these places.

“Imagine if you’re with five other people in the middle of the Antarctic, then you’re very dependent on what other people do for staying safe and well.” said Nathan.

We should discuss honestly and openly with our family members about these things to help us model our behaviours.

Managing proximity

“When someone is particularly grumpy, the last thing you want to do is tip them over the edge and cause all that arguments” said Nathan.

In an ideal world, we should have some control about when we bring issues up and try not to fan the flames. However, this is easier said than done when you have to move around a small space, navigating your partner and children in your home. 

One thing you can do is create your own private space without people interrupting you, even if it’s just a little corner to have some quiet time, to do your work will play a significant role in determining how well you feel you’re doing and how likely you are to want to continue living this way.

Staying motivated

It’s normal to experience ups and downs during this time. We can’t always keep focused and sharp. For a long time, we have managed a slew of different pressure demands on top of expanded obligations. Many are working longer days, balancing personal tasks as we work from home. In fact, snagging a good night’s sleep has become an impossibility for some. 

“It creates a cluster effect, layers of different types of stressful demands and at some point if you keep adding stresses to an already full stress bucket, it’s gonna tip over.” said Nathan. 

One concept you can adopt is “responsibility-free break” used at aviation company NATS where controllers are limited to working two-hour stretches at a time after which they’re given a 30-minute window to step away and have a chat with other controllers. 

Yup, these are the golden rules from the people who choose to put themselves in extreme situations that we can learn and apply to our own daily lives. We hope this article will inspire you to eat a slice of cake to celebrate the little achievements in your life, carve out space for your ‘me time’ or have a moment of pause in between your day.