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An Astronaut's Guide To Coping With Social Isolation

NASA Johnson/Flickr (Public Domain)
NASA astronaut Anne McClain, in foreground, training with a fellow astronaut before departing for the International Space Station in December 2018.

From Texas Standard:

Being confined and socially distanced from others during the COVID-19 pandemic is difficult for many people. But it may help to know that some have lived in quasi-isolation successfully, and even managed to learn valuable lessons from the experience.

NASA astronaut Anne McClain spent more than six months living in the International Space Station. She left Earth in December of 2018, which meant she missed Christmas with her son who was 4 years old at the time. McClain returned in June the following year.

She says living successfully while in isolation – or in close quarters with others – is all about having the right mindset. Her overarching goal on the ISS, aside from her scientific mission, was “getting along with others.” Six people at a time live in the ISS, which orbits the Earth nearly every 90 minutes and moves at a speed of five miles per second. The living and working quarters are approximately the size of a six-bedroom house, with two bathrooms.

McClain says cooperation is essential on the space station because the consequences could be grave if crew members don't get along. She says, imagine that “you have a crew that goes to space, and a month into it they’re not speaking to each other – that’s just not going to be an effective team.”

McClain has a few tips for anyone, on Earth or otherwise, who wants to get along well with others in close quarters.

Communication: Active listening and asking someone questions to help clarify what they mean can really help people better communicate with each other.

Leadership and followership: McClain says those skills are “basically how the team hierarchy adapts to a changing situation.” Meaning, one day, maybe you’re the person to lead a certain task because you’re the most knowledgeable. But tomorrow, maybe those roles change depending on the task at hand. She also says that in a family, children don’t always have to be the follower; parents can let them lead sometimes, too.

Self-care: Remember to do nice things for yourself; take care of your needs.

Manage expectations: Being calm in the face of stress is essential. McClain says it’s important to recognize that “stress is when expectations don’t meet reality.” So when you can’t change aspects of a certain situation, it’s healthier – and essential, actually – for the survival of the team to manage those expectations. She calls this "team care."

Kindness: It might sound old-fashioned, but McClain says it’s important to simply be nice – it will go a long way. She says one way to be nice while living in a group is to relieve someone from a task they’re struggling with.

McClain’s final words about coping with tough situations that require teamwork: “Be intentional; stay ahead of the mental game; set your goals and ... do practical things to help [your team].”

In time, she says circumstances do change, and there might even be things we will miss from our time in isolation. Put more simply: This too shall pass.

Digital story edited by Caroline Covington.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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