An astronaut’s advice: 6 ways to thrive in isolation and dream big
British astronaut Tim Peake explains how the lessons he’s learned in space can be applied to our own challenges here on Earth. And the best way to handle anxieties around returning to a new normal.
You’ve spent the last few months working on your own, in a small space, isolated from loved ones, and connected to the world via video. Congratulations, your experience is pretty similar to an astronaut (minus the rocketships, spacesuits and cool dehydrated food).
Like any mission, there might be false steps and mistakes along the way – here’s how you prepare yourself for them like an astronaut.
1. Routine and schedule are your friend
Tim says that the one thing we’ve got to remember is that whereas astronauts get specific training for the isolation they face, for many people the lifestyle change of lockdown would have been a shock.
“We went into space knowing what we were going into and the Space Agency spent so long training us for the conditions. They target isolation, they target resilience, they target communication and motivation too.
“But for many people, lockdown came on pretty quickly and with no training. And so people were just left to try and adapt to a changing situation.”
One of the things that really helps astronauts adapt in space is a schedule and a routine, explains Tim. “I implemented that straightaway when we went into lockdown and it really helped. It was a case of, okay, we're not drifting through this. We're going to exercise, we're going to get on with the homeschooling – everyone's got their plan.”
“When you feel like you're lacking control, a schedule can help you regain some of that control.”
It’s this kind of plan and goal setting that can help keep your resilience high and your feelings of anxiety at bay. So you know what to expect and when.
Speaking of which....
2. Set expectations
One of the problems with being told all the things you can’t do makes you want to do them even more.
Having a schedule in place doesn’t just help to keep you on track, it also helps to manage other people's expectations and avoid conflict.
“For example, on the Space Station we always knew who was supposed to be using a piece of exercise equipment at any particular time,” says Tim. “So nobody ever went to the treadmill and said, ‘Hey, you know, you've been on there 30 minutes. I'd like to go and have a run.’ It was all scheduled.”
3. Have a re-entry plan
We have no idea when things will go “back to normal”, and in all likelihood, they never will. How do astronauts cope with returning from space?
Tim says astronauts get as much training for coming back to Earth as they do going into space.
“We focus a lot on resilience and how to adapt to our changing circumstances. We call it normalizing the abnormal.”
“This is about embracing your circumstances and focusing on the things that you can control, and the things that you can change,” says Tim. “Without worrying about the things that you can't change, and the things that you can't control.”
“So when it came back to re-entry to earth in the few weeks leading up to that, we would start to talk about reintegrating back with our families, with our scheduled events that were coming up,” explains Tim.
“You don't want to distract from what's going on in space on both the Space Station, but you just want to start that process so we're starting to gradually become prepared for another changing circumstance.
“But even so it was quite an abrupt transition once we landed on Earth. Only two hours later, I was saying goodbye to my crew mates, who I'd been living side-by-side with for six months.”
Tim says that he was then immersed into a very busy environment. “It was a schedule where everybody wants a piece of you – literally! We had muscle biopsies and blood taken, interviews and tests. So it was a stark transition. It took some getting used to.”
Tim says the best way to get through difficult and stressful times for him is to try and roll with it as much as possible. “Develop an ability to have a flexible mindset,” says Tim. “We haven't seen the end of this yet. Take control of what you can, plan as much as you can, but don’t worry about the things that you can't control. I think that's really key.”
4. Talk through your problems
But what if you can’t stop worrying? “People will worry. And that's absolutely natural. And in those circumstances, what I think helps is just talking to people. Having a friend or family member where you can just discuss your problems. It's an old cliche, isn't it?
“A problem shared is a problem halved.”
After all, your problems don’t disappear in orbit. “There were six of us on the Space Station,” says Tim. “There were times when you could realize one of your crew mates had gone a bit quiet. Maybe they just came off a phone call at home and things weren't going very smoothly. We’d chat about it. We’d sit around the table and talk through and share problems.
“And even though there wasn't a solution, or you couldn't necessarily do anything about it right there, just the act of talking about it gives comfort.”
5. Remember your successes
Since returning from his celestial adventures Tim says his perspective has shifted. “Community and cooperation are things that are really important to me. We work so closely with other nations on the Space Station. It seems to me that space and science seem to be able to transcend political difficulties.
“You see the earth as one planet from space with no borders. You realize that we're all in it together.”
Tim says it helps focus your mentality into the fact that we do need to be cooperating a lot better here on earth. “We need to be looking after each other and our planet a lot better,” he says.
“I don't know any astronaut who's come back from space and doesn't feel that way.”
Tim says he’s calmer than he once was. “I draw on my experiences in space to help me when things start to get on top of me. If I'm starting to feel the stress and the pressure I can think, ‘Come on, you’ve done a space walk, you can deal with this!’”
Although very few of us can claim that we’ve had that experience to draw on, Tim says that the mentality still applies: remember when you did something scary or intimidating and how you not only got through it, but flourished.
“It’s important to draw on things throughout our life that give us the confidence to move forward.”
6. Dream big
It’s not just children who are fascinated by space travel. All ages are gripped by the potential of what’s beyond our own planet. “I think what really inspires people is how we can use our imagination when it comes to space travel,” he explains. “We're constantly expanding our boundaries in terms of going to the moon, going to Mars.
“We’ve even recently found out there may be alien life forms in Venus. How crazy is that?”
Everybody's been focused on Mars for so many years and suddenly Venus could be the planet where we find life.
“There are moons around Jupiter and Saturn that have icy crusts and liquids, with salty oceans beneath them. And there’s the potential for life there.”
Despite these concepts being quite literally out of this world, we can still apply this curiosity to our own lives and workplaces. “I certainly take a huge amount of inspiration when I'm reading about these kinds of things,” says Tim. “Allow your mind to wander about the vastness of the universe of what else might be out there.
“Be inspired by it.”
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