In 2016, at the age of 56, the American Peggy Whitson rocketed off the planet becoming the oldest woman in space ever. Now retired, she also was the first lady to head NASA’s male-dominated astronaut corps. No other female astronaut has spent more time in space than her (665 days).
I thought of her quite often these days while circumstances are forcing all of us being stuck at home: she is no stranger to isolation, uncertainty, and confined spaces. How did she cope during those missions away from her family? How did she manage to live in such a small environment and keep a positive mindset? What astronauts can teach us?
Being aware of the way astronauts live aboard the International Space Station handling similar issues might help us cope with self-isolation. The challenge is learning how to be resourceful when you have limited opportunities and limited options available to you.
Isolation is actually very doable – Peggy Whitson said in a NASA interview-, but it’s very important to be able to interact well with the people you’re staying with, living with. The important thing is knowing what to expect and how to prioritize.
As well as astronauts in the space, it’s important to follow a schedule: maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to different work and home life environment.
A lot of people are trying to work from home and trying to be parents from home and have a family at home and so it becomes very challenging- Whitson said-. But that’s just like what we did on board the International Space Station. Our space station crew became our family in orbit and we had to not only work with them all throughout the day, but we couldn’t go home at night. We stayed there on board the station and had to interact as well. You learn not to get to pick your crew, you’re just going to be up there and you have to make the best of whatever situation.
For keeping spirits up, staying connected, and making the most of difficult situations astronauts suggest to continue communicating with loved ones and strangers too (online or simply waving to neighbours). It’s also important to prioritise cooperation, respect and tolerance, make enjoyable plans for your free time and keep a journal. NASA has been studying the effects of isolation on humans for decades, and one surprising finding they have made is the value of keeping a journal. The key is to try describing what you are experiencing through your five senses more than just chronicling the days’ events (which, under the circumstances, might get repetitive).
And don’t forget to include in your schedule a consistent bedtime. NASA scientists closely study astronauts’ sleep when we are in space, and they have found that quality of sleep relates to cognition, mood, and interpersonal relations all essential to getting through a mission in space or a quarantine at home.
Peggy Whitson added that a major factor that helps astronauts to stay positive in their environment is also “a higher purpose” or the greater meaning of their work. But, while astronaut’s work helps to advance human knowledge and exploration, Whitson said that our current homebound situations have a higher meaning as well: “it is important to understand that bigger purpose and to embrace that purpose to give you reason and rationale for continuing to put up with the situation.”
Seen from space, the Earth has no borders. The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. All people are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.
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