Social distancing got you down? These experts on isolation have advice that may help

While some countries are easing their lockdowns, many people around the world are still staying at home and social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19. This can be a struggle, with confinement and uncertainty fueling anxiety, stress and loneliness. But some people have spent long periods of time living — and thriving — in isolation, and they have tips that could help even after lockdowns are lifted.

Amir Hekmati spent five years in prison in Iran, 18 months of which were in solitary confinement. At one point, he was sentenced to death for being “at war with God” for having served in Iraq as a U.S. Marine.

“The most difficult challenges were the never-ending torment of the unknown,” he said. “The ‘When will this be over?’ and having to sit helplessly while your life, freedoms and aspirations pass you by.”

Former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati, recently released from an Iranian prison, arrives at an airport in Flint, Michigan, January 21, 2016.


But after an initial period of shock, Hekmati said he learned he had to accept what he could not change about his situation.

“Acceptance is the first step,” he explained.

He also tried to accept his worst-case scenario: His execution. “Once we can accept that worst outcome, our mind then shifts to making the best out of it,” Hekmati said. “I started to oddly find good in my situation. I was reading more than ever before and felt much more closer to God spiritually.”

He said we can all find things to be grateful for, even during this difficult time. And he suggested writing out a daily routine, including reading, exercising and getting enough sleep.

“You need a game plan and structure,” he advised. “Once you start to feel anxiety, you try to meet the next milestone of your day.”  

Astronaut Jay Buckley.

Courtesy of Jay Buckley

Jay Buckey, a former NASA astronaut who orbited Earth on the space shuttle Columbia with six crewmates in 1998, also said that maintaining a schedule is important when we experience confinement.

“If you’re anxious, you can step back and think, ‘What’s the trigger that’s making you anxious and is it as bad as you think?'” he explained. “It helps you put together action plans.”

If you get into an argument with your family members, partner or roommate, he recommended keeping communication focused on the issue at hand and “not saying things that you know are going to aggravate the other person just because you want to get back at them.”

Turning down tension is just one tip in an online toolkit, funded by NASA and launched by Buckey and his team at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College. The program has trained astronauts and Antarctic explorers to deal with stress management, depression and conflicts. Buckey said it can also help the rest of us deal with isolation and confinement.

“The program is designed to help you identify what issues you’re facing, brainstorm some creative solutions and put together a plan on what you’re going to do,” he said.

Karin Jansdotter, who leads a team of six at Norway’s Troll Station in Antarctica, so remote that the closest sign of civilization is a Russian research station about 240 miles away.

Courtesy of Karin Jansdotter

Karin Jansdotter knows a lot about the challenges of confinement. She leads a team of six at Norway’s Troll Station in Antarctica, so remote that the closest sign of civilization is a Russian research station about 240 miles away.

“Being active is the first top tip that I would give,” she said. “The other one is to give everyone space to be on their own. … Have a tidy house, less clutter, less stress.”

Jansdotter, the chef at her station, also suggested eating healthy food, including vegetables and fruit, to strengthen the immune system.

If you’re lonely, reach out to family and friends, she recommended, adding that this can also be a good time to look within.

Summit Station, an Arctic research station funded by the National Science Foundation.

Courtesy of Rachel Murray

“Take this time now to reflect and slow down and sort of appreciate maybe the people that you have around you,” Jansdotter said. “I think that’s the best advice that I can give from where we live here.”

Buckey, the former astronaut, agreed.

“Sometimes we don’t really appreciate the homes we have, the people we care for and who care for us,” he said. “These kinds of events highlight the importance of that.”

Rachel Murray said her experiences in isolation also gave her a new sense of appreciation. For several years, she was stationed in Antarctica at the US research base McMurdo Station. More recently, she has been working as a science technician at Summit Station, an Arctic research station funded by the National Science Foundation.

Rachel Murray

Courtesy of Rachel Murray

“Whenever you leave, you have an appreciation for something you didn’t realize you had before,” she explained. She enjoyed smelling flowers again and eating whatever she wanted.

We can all use the lessons we’re learning now to help us as lockdowns are lifted, she said.

“When we do come out [of this isolation],” she said, “we’ll appreciate being able to hug someone and do things we haven’t gotten to do.”

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