Coping with coronavirus lockdowns: What astronauts can teach us

Confined and isolated astronauts – and their supporting programmes – have answers and an online tool you can use now.

ISS astronauts
NASA astronaut Anne McClain assists fellow NASA astronauts Christina Koch, left, and Nick Hague on the International Space Station [File: NASA Handout/Reuters]

Since we’re stuck at home, thank goodness space exploration programmes have given us the memory foam in our mattresses, instant pot noodles, and perhaps most importantly satellite TV, without which there would be no binging on Netflix. 

At this time, when many of us are confining ourselves inside our homes to shelter in place and to stop the spread of COVID-19, astronauts, cosmonauts and the programmes that support them have some space-worthy advice to share.

In a virtual Asteroid Day event held recently, Romanian cosmonaut Dumitru Prunariu illustrated to his fellow spacefarers the challenge billions of people across the globe now face: the psychological risks of long-duration isolation, in a confined space, away from friends, colleagues, and even family, in a dangerous environment.

“Now I’m with my wife in [our] house. We are isolated in a way, self-isolated. We are feeling well but what happened around, it is crazy. It is very dangerous now,” said Prunariu, who is Romania’s first cosmonaut.

“If you stay too long in [an] isolated place, you start to talk to things, to the plants, to the dog and so on. The worst thing is when they start to answer to you,” he joked – but just partially.

More than 1.2 million people across the planet are confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19, and the virus has claimed nearly 65,000 lives, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 tracker.

With healthcare systems across the world either bracing for or overwhelmed by a tsunami of sick and dying patients, governments have instituted draconian measures to keep their citizens and residents isolated in their homes. 

Understanding our vulnerability 

Because Prunariu was part of the Soviet-era Salyut programme, which launched cosmonauts into orbit to conduct science experiments, he is no doubt mindful of the experience of Valentin Lebedev. In 1982, Lebedev spent 211 days with only his crewmate for company on the Salyut 7 space station. 

In his book Diary of a Cosmonaut, Lebedev revealed the psychological distress he experienced during a mission with fellow crewmate, Anatoly Berezovoy.

Lebedev wrote: “July 11: Today was difficult. I don’t think we understand what is going on with us. We silently pass each other, feeling offended. We have to find some way to make things better.”

Lebedev recalled that he and his crewmate went weeks without speaking to each other, lost interest in their work, snapped at ground-control crew, and eventually stopped looking out of the portholes.

“These are normal reactions,” Gro Sandal, the deputy dean for research in the Department of Psychosocial Science at the University of Bergen in Norway, told Al Jazeera.

Sandal was the principal investigator for the Mars500 project, an experiment that put six mock cosmonauts under observation for a 520-day simulated space mission. She said that social and sensory monotony make us vulnerable to depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances and problems concentrating.

It can also make us less than generous towards the people locking down with us.

“Your annoyance about another person’s behaviour may be more a psychological reaction to isolation and confinement than a reflection of the bad qualities of the other person,” she said.

Mars 500 experiment
Participants of the Mars500 experiment, which simulated a flight to Mars in a mock-up that included an interplanetary spaceship and Mars lander, were isolated for 520 days to test human endurance [File: Denis Sinyakov/Reuters]

Losing and taking back control 

Bear in mind that cosmonauts and astronauts – the men and women with “the right stuff” – choose to spend long periods of time in space, away from family and friends and confined within the International Space Station (ISS).

Sandal, who is now working with Russia’s space agency Roscosmos to study cosmonauts, said, “One difference between our subjects and people during this coronavirus crisis is that the former group is highly motivated and prepared for how to deal with different challenges.”

British astronaut Tim Peake, who has spent a total of 185 days in space over three missions, also took part in the Asteroid Day discussion. He said maintaining habits and routine is what he and his colleagues used aboard the ISS to manage expectations and accomplish tasks.

“I think we need to embrace that here at home. We call it ‘normalising the abnormal’. On the space station, what that means is getting up, having a cup of tea, having a bacon sandwich and going to work. You’re in a very abnormal situation, but actually the routine of your everyday life, by having that structure, that schedule, it keeps everything on track,” he said.

Tim Peak astronaut
British astronaut Tim Peake, who has spent a total of 185 days in space over three missions, advises those coping with lockdowns to ‘normalise the abnormal’, which on the ISS means ‘getting up, having a cup of tea, having a bacon sandwich and going to work’ [Reuters]

Online tools designed by an astronaut that you can use

The disruption of everyday work-life rhythms and being confined to home can cause overwhelming feelings of vulnerability – and therefore a loss of control. That can trigger depression and serious interpersonal problems, experts say – unless we pull ourselves out of destructive mood ruts.

“What happens is that people with depression just stop working on problems,” Dr Jay Buckey, an astronaut and the director of the Space Medicine Innovations Laboratory at the Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine in the United States, told Al Jazeera.

In partnership with NASA, Buckey and his team created a self-guided online programme called PATH to manage conflict, stress, and depression. Anyone who wants to can access and use the programme.

Buckey said the intent of the online programme’s depression module is to guide people in identifying problems that they do have some control over, that can be solved in a short period of time, with a good chance of success.

It’s not for “a problem that they can’t solve, like you know their boss is a jerk. You’re not really going to solve that. But you can solve other things like you’re not interacting with people, or you’re not taking care of the house,” he said.

Buckey said that a challenge many will face in confinement is the strain it will place on significant relationships, such as between parents and children, spouses and close friends. He said managing conflict and preserving important relationships are essential to strengthening our interpersonal support network.

“One of the problems of having a small group of people live in isolated and confined environments is dealing with interpersonal conflict. The long-term relationship matters,” he said. 

“It’s not like having a difficult negotiation over a used car. It’s really important that people become good at managing conflicts.”

Buckey said that the programme’s conflict resolution module was originally designed for use by astronauts, but that the strategies offered can be used here on Earth. He said that while we all differ in our ability to manage interpersonal conflict, we can be trained to do better.

“The idea behind the programme is to give people self-guided tools that they can use, because when you are in a closed environment, I mean who are you going to talk with? Where are you going to get training about this? From the people you are already in conflict with? You need to have some tool that you can use,” he said. 

Source: Al Jazeera