Canadian astronauts share advice on self-isolating during the COVID-19 pandemic
TORONTO -- Calls to stay indoors and practise physical distancing have led to a drastic shift in daily routines around the world.
But just look up at the stars and you’ll find some inspiration on how to survive self-isolation.
In recent days, astronauts such as Scott Kelly, Peggy Whitson, and Canada’s own Chris Hadfield have shared their advice for living in confinement as many North Americans adapt to a new norm. These space explorers and many more have spent months in isolation while completing their missions.
Hadfield – who captained the International Space Station in 2012 and 2013, becoming the first Canadian to do so – points out key similarities between conditions aboard a spaceship and living in isolation during a pandemic, including the existence of danger and a radical shift in daily patterns. For many, he said, both are a great source of fear.
“Astronauts spend most of their adult lives trying to understand the actual risks and dangers underlying the fears people have,” he told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday via telephone. “They’re trying to become experts in the things that can make you afraid.”
Public fear towards the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is what inspired him to post a video over the weekend sharing tips on how to self-isolate.
“It’s an extremely dangerous environment up onboard the space station, and yet we find a way to thrive and be productive, that far away from our normal lives,” he said in the video.
CTVNews.ca reached out to Hadfield and other Canadian astronauts for their advice on how to get through this period of isolation.
The first step to self-isolation, said Hadfield, is understanding the actual risk by separating perceived fear from danger itself.
“If you don’t know what to be frightened of, everything is frightening,” said the native of Sarnia, Ont.
He recommends using a credible source to stay informed – something he saidthat isn’t hard these days given such widespread internet access, he says. Astronaut David Saint-Jacques also encourages this. Having travelled on the longest Canadian space mission to date – 204 days in length – he stresses the importance of assessing risk early on to form a strategy going forward.
“You can’t let it petrify you – that doesn’t help anybody,” he told CTVNews.ca via telephone on Tuesday. “You have to digest enough information and make a plan depending on your resources and environment.”
Robert Thirsk, the first Canadian astronaut to travel on a long-duration expedition aboard the ISS, suggests making a checklist of things to accomplish at the beginning of the day, and keeping track of what gets done.
“My day is not going to wander aimlessly by,” he told CTVNews.ca on Tuesday by phone. “There’s going to be purpose to my day even though it’s different from what I normally do.”
Having this sense of purpose is what makes setting goals so important, said Hadfield, who has flown on two Space Shuttle missions.
“One of the reasons people feel so insecure and lonely is because they don’t have a sense of purpose or belonging to something bigger than themselves,” he said.
By outlining goals for this afternoon, this week or this month, no matter how big or small, people can give themselves a sense of direction in order to be more productive.
“Start doing things, they don’t have to be the things you always did before,” said Hadfield. “Take care of family, start a new project, learn to play guitar, study another language, read a book, write, create.”
MAINTAIN A WORK-LIFE BALANCE
For many people, self-isolating involves working from home. According to Saint-Jacques, part of staying sane while under confinement is separating both environments.
“In a space station, either you’re living at work or working from home,” he said. “We would be very careful to psychologically create a home and workplace out of the same building.”
There are many ways people can do this, he explained, whether by moving to a different part of the house or changing into work clothes.
It also involves maintaining a daily routine, said Thirsk, involving exercise, good hygiene, and enough food and rest.
“We can’t stay in our pyjamas and watch reruns all day,” he said. “We still need to put structure into our days to feel fulfilled.”
Maintaining a work-life balance was something he struggled with on one of his space missions. After about a month into the expedition, consistently working 16-hour days, he would often wake up tired.
“It wasn’t physical fatigue, it was psychological fatigue,” said the former astronaut. “I was constantly going at 100 per cent.”
Thirsk said he needed time to himself that didn’t involve work in order to reflect on the bigger picture of what he was doing.
“A spaceflight – like COVID – is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “We have to make sure we have the resources we’re going to need in the coming days.”
Also important to remember is effective communication. Living in confinement will likely lead to a rise in tension, and consequently, conflict, said Saint-Jacques. Under these circumstances, it’s important to make sure to communicate. He reminds people to address any faux pas, apologize when necessary, and respect personal space.
“You have to make a conscious effort to maintain healthy positive relationships,” said Saint-Jacques. “It’s not something that just happens.”
All three space explorers also stress the importance of human contact and keeping in touch with family and friends, something easily done using electronic devices.
“We live in an incredible communication and information technology age,” said Thirsk. “While technology can’t replace that face-to-face connection, it’s a darn good second.”
As Hadfield puts it, not much has changed for those around the world – many are still likely living in the same home, with access to the same resources. Much of the panic, he said, has come from a disruption to daily routines. But with these tips in mind, the retired astronaut encourages Canadians and those across the world to adapt to new patterns of living.
“Understand the dangers, look at constraints, and set objectives,” he said. “This doesn’t just apply to a pandemic, it applies to Saturday.”