Ask an astronomer: How do astronauts deal with isolation?

Being stuck at home is not as intense as being away from Earth, but there are ways to cope in either scenario.

MICHELLE THALLER: When it comes to how to deal with isolation and feeling like you're sort of helpless and cut off from everybody, it's hard to beat the experience of an astronaut, where they literally are cut off from Earth. And even if they wanted to, they couldn't just come to Earth very easily. It would be a lot of effort to do so. And they're going to be up there, say in the Space Station, for quite a long time. Six months or even longer. So, how do astronauts deal with isolation? Although I've never been to space myself, I have several friends who are astronauts and one of the things that I had heard about from them, psychologically, when you're trying to deal with that sort of withdrawing of stimulus, everything is much more constrained than you're used to.

One of the things they do is try to really maintain a schedule. Try to understand that you're going to get up at this time. Even though that's artificial. The Space Station goes around the Earth once every 90 minutes, so when you're on the Space Station you get a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes. And so, the idea is that internal to their world they create a routine, a time they get up, a time they all get together, a time to talk, a time to interact, a time to work, and they keep the schedule as consistently as they possibly can.

You may have heard that people who have trouble sleeping often will sleep better if they will go to bed at a set time every day and your body just knows to expect those same rhythms. That said, some of my friends who are astronauts have talked about the difficulties of dealing with, I said before sort of the lack of sensory input. And one of the things, surprisingly, I've heard them talk about is the sense of smell. That up on the Space Station, things are very clean and very sterile as you might expect, a very enclosed environment, the air is recirculated, all of the water is recirculated and they miss the smell of life, of food, of being outside, of the air and grass. There was one astronaut I was giving a presentation with that said there was a shipment of fresh fruit that came up during a resupply cargo mission and one of the things they brought were oranges, fresh oranges. And everybody was really enjoying this and people ate their oranges and he said that he actually hid his orange away in his private compartment and all he wanted to do was just smell it, just smell that really lovely orange smell, something that reminded him of life. And a lot of astronauts talk about that when they finally open the door of the Soyuz capsule after they have gone back to Earth and they smell the air, that's really wonderful. So, part of it is maybe also look for ways to give yourself some comfort, some stimulation that you find really enjoyable.

I know for me I've done a lot of just walking just outside my house. I live on a two acre lot so there aren't people around, enjoying the sunlight, enjoying the breeze, taking steps not to feel quite so cooped up if you do have that. On a personal note for me as scary as COVID-19 is, it turned into kind of a silver lining for my husband and I because my husband is now, this is sad but it's life, he's actually in the final stages of cancer and we don't expect him to live out more than a year. And going to work, which I love, I absolutely love going to work every day for NASA, for my friends, for the discoveries, but sometimes in the middle of the afternoon I'd say should I be here when Andrew is at home when I may not have that much time with him? And the quarantine, we haven't left the house now for over a week at all I mean just to go out into the yard a little bit. It's giving me a chance to be with him to sort of slow life down, still getting the work done, still having all of that connection virtually, but to me it's been this wonderful time to actually just enjoy very simple things: cooking a meal, looking out a window, playing with our cat and enjoying life. So, one of the things as well when you're given a difficult situation is try as hard as you can to find some aspect of it that's good. And there are certainly situations that have nothing good about them, but if you're still reasonably healthy and you're inside due to COVID-19 take some time to think about yourself. Maybe something that you've been curious about, something you didn't have time to do before. If you're having forced time with a loved one someone and now you can't escape because you're not supposed to leave the house, what about your relationship might take some work, some good work, some fun, some growth, some development? It turned out that this was going to be a very special time for me. Hopefully I will recover and I won't get very sick from COVID-19 if I do get it, but I think that as I look back in time this isolation, this slowing down, is going to turn out to be a real gift for me that I'll remember for the rest of my life.

  • While she has not personally been to space, NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller has heard from friends and colleagues what it is like to truly be isolated. Coping mechanisms for these extreme cases can also benefit people here on Earth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Setting and maintaining a schedule can help you and your body return to a more normal state, as can finding familiar sensory inputs. For astronauts, that includes Earthly scents like citrus.
  • Speaking personally and making a point about silver linings, Thaller shares a story about how COVID-19 has given her more time with her sick husband for what are likely his final days.

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