This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company
Anyone else dreading winter?
Cases of COVID-19 are climbing, and winter weather is going to cut off many of the lifelines — picnics in the park, running outside, outdoor dining — so many people have depended on for sanity this year. Vaccines are on the horizon, but even the most optimistic timelines put them months away. And time with family during the holidays, normally a bright spot in winter months, is all but canceled this year.
But there are ways to steel yourself for such a dark set of circumstances! In fact, some people have been through all of that and then some.
Take, for instance, an astronaut who spent nearly a year in space. Or the station leader of a research outpost in Antarctica. Or one of the eight people sealed inside the artificial ecosystem Biosphere 2 for two years in the early 1990s.
The New York Times spoke with these people to get advice on coping with life in extended isolation — and how to deal with not quite being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
If there’s one takeaway, it’s this: Adaptation and expectation management are key.
Just a few hundred miles away, but a world apart
For 328 days between March 2019 and February 2020, NASA astronaut Christina Koch was floating 250 miles above Earth aboard the International Space Station, setting the record for the longest continuous time spent in space by a woman. An astronaut since 2013, Koch, 41, was trained to deal with long-term isolation and constantly changing circumstances, but there isn’t exactly training on what to do when the world you come back to is wholly different from the one you left.
But that’s not to say she wasn’t equipped.
“One of the qualities that astronauts develop is adaptability and managing expectations,” Koch said. “And I think that we really honed the skill of being able to be OK with whatever comes down the road and to just adapt our hopes and dreams to what that situation is and make the best of it.”
While aboard the I.S.S., Koch and her crew mates watched the early days of the pandemic unfold, but they didn’t know how deeply things would change.
She returned to Earth in February, but just as she was finishing physical rehabilitation and ready to embark on the many plans she had made, Koch had to trade one type of isolation for another. “Right when I was ready to go back out into the world, it got shut back down,” she said.
To be clear, being stuck at home inside with all of the comforts — and Seamless deliveries — we’re used to isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples comparison to spending nearly a year in space. But many of the emotions and psychological bruises we are dealing with right now are actually similar to what astronauts experience in space, Koch said. And the strategies and tactics of dealing with those experiences can be quite transferable.
For instance, Koch said that learning to accept and be comfortable with unpredictability is something that is built into astronaut training. During her time on the I.S.S., Koch said, there were days she would go to sleep knowing her schedule for the next day, only to wake up and have it entirely rearranged. And even if a day’s schedule didn’t have any surprises, at any moment something could go wrong, and the entire crew would have to adapt — a mindset she uses while quarantining at home.
“What you can control is how you react to that situation,” she said. “What you can control is whether or not you let yourself go down a bad mental path or not.”
In fact, while on the I.S.S., Koch was surprised by an extension to her mission by about five months. So in one sense, she said, she has been here before.
“I had to shift my thinking from, ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint,’ to, ‘It’s an ultramarathon, not a marathon,’” she said. “In the pandemic, that’s what I have reframed. When lockdown started, it was going to be a two-week pause, and now it’s going to last through the spring.”
Ms. Koch said a key skill she uses from her time in space is learning how to stay connected to loved ones when we can’t be physically present. While in space, for example, Koch “ran” a half-marathon in Glacier National Park with her friends; at the same time they were running on the course, Koch ran the 13.1 miles on her space treadmill.
“You have to be creative in how you stay relevant in the lives of your loved ones,” she said. “Staying relevant means you don’t just communicate occasionally by email; you do things that almost feel like you’re close.”
As for all those plans she had in store? This time she is just going to wait and see.
“I’m a big fan of just setting expectations in my own mind to always err on the side of being pleasantly surprised,” she said, “rather than being disappointed.”
‘Not every day can be sunshine and penguins’
Your average day this year probably looks a little bit like David Knoff’s.
He drags himself out of bed around 7 a.m., looks at the weather, then sips a latte while planning his day. He makes his morning commute — a very short trip from where he sleeps to where he works — and catches up on emails for a few hours before attending online meetings.
Mealtimes are always the same, and the faces around the dinner table never change, except for the occasional extreme haircut or overgrown beard. To unwind, he might have some tea or a beer and reminisce about what life used to be like.
But there’s one key difference: Knoff lives in perhaps the most remote place on the planet — and his most exciting evening lately involved penguins.