GVSU expert shares what astronauts can tell us about enduring isolation (one hint: Plan movie nights)

Astronauts have learned that common activities help with isolation.
Astronauts have learned that common activities help with isolation.
Image Credit: Valerie Wojciechowski
Deana Weibel
Deana Weibel
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

With federal guidelines for social distancing extended because of the COVID-19 pandemic and much of the country under stay-at-home orders, a large segment of the population is dealing with isolation for the foreseeable future.

Among us is a small segment of the population that understands isolation in a way no one else can. Astronauts have had to find ways to handle isolation to get their job done, get along with each other and for their overall well-being, said Deana Weibel, professor of anthropology, whose research focus includes space exploration.

Weibel, who recently wrote an article for The Space Review  about this issue, shares some lessons astronauts have learned that can apply to everyone in these extraordinary times. The upshot: Even though it's serious business in space, diversions are crucial for tolerating isolation.

• Have a schedule

With nowhere to go, it is easy to fall into the trap of days almost numbingly running together. What astronauts know, Weibel said, is that having a schedule creates the structure necessary to break up the days and provide mental stimulation.

NASA gives astronauts a significant list of tasks to complete in each 24-hour period, often more than the astronauts can finish, Weibel said. 

"You're staying so busy, isolation isn't really an issue because you always have the next thing to do," Weibel said.

 Communicate with others outside your current small world

As they move about in the heavens, astronauts have the constant of the ground crew's voices in their heads, Weibel said. That is a crucial line of support, but astronauts count on more. 

Even as they orbit the Earth, they can have instantaneous communication with loved ones using a variety of devices, Weibel said. They may be busy with tasks and sometimes carrying out risky maneuvers, but they know how important it is to reach out beyond their confines.

That shows the power of real human connection, which plays out on Earth right now in the popularity of video meetings, video parties and video chats with friends. "If this had happened even 20 years ago we couldn't have done that," she said.

• Celebrate milestones, make special efforts to connect, pitch in and look for morale boosters

Weibel said research has shown that isolation can be one of the major causes of conflict with crew members who are confined together for extended periods. She cited work by anthropologist Jack Stuster, who had astronauts keep diaries during their missions.

Some of the conclusions drawn can help those in isolation from wearing on each other as the weeks go by, she said.

Ideas: Be sure to celebrate birthdays, holidays and other passages of time. Little surprises like an unexpected item in the food stash for astronauts can give them a mental boost, Weibel said. So, too, might a splurge treat for a family member in a grocery order or preparing a loved one's favorite meal.

Speaking of meals, having them together helps with a meaningful connection, Weibel said. Designated nights for movies or a TV series gives everyone something to anticipate, including astronauts. Scott Kelly, who recently wrote about his experiences with isolation while in space, said he binge-watched Game of Thrones twice.

And be sure chores are evenly distributed to cut down on potential resentment while being cooped up. Again, that was important for astronauts, research found.

• Get some fresh air

Weibel noted that astronaut and West Michigan native Christina Koch, who returned to Earth in February from the International Space Station, talked of being eager for outdoor sensory experiences such as feeling a breeze. That yearning shows nature is a balm, and many of those isolated on Earth right now can experience it by getting outside.

The benefit of a walk? Much-needed exercise, something astronauts also swear by, though they have special reasons given their environment. "Astronauts will lose bone mass if they don't," Weibel said.