How Astronaut Scott Kelly Wards Off Feelings of Isolation

The pandemic is taking a serious toll on our mental health. Here are a few tips on surviving this crazy time from a man who spent a full year away from civilization.

Although astronaut Scott Kelly didn’t know it at the time, his four missions in space, including an almost yearlong stint on the International Space Station away from his family and friends in 2015, were providing far more than a paycheck and some really cool photos for his Facebook page.

Flash-forward to 2020 when the world is embroiled in the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and the best weapons against it are stay-at-home mandates, masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing, all of which severely limit human interaction and connection. According to an AARP Foundation and United Health Foundation study released in October, pandemic-induced loneliness has become its own public health crisis, with two-thirds of U.S. adults experiencing isolation and 66 percent reporting rising anxiety levels. In fact, experts fear that the health risks of prolonged isolation may be worse for you than obesity and equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

While the cause of Kelly’s earlier seclusion was voluntary and vastly different, the isolation resulting from the current crisis feels familiar. Though now retired, he set the record for total accumulated days spent in space and the single longest space mission by an American astronaut, and when the pandemic hit, he found himself reaching back into his NASA toolbox. Here, he shares the cosmic coping skills he picked up while shuttling around the stars in hopes of helping those struggling to stay grounded as winter returns and coronavirus surges.

Don’t be ashamed to seek help

The levels of social isolation, depression, loneliness, and clinical anxiety found by the aforementioned AARP/UHF study are alarming. Notably, 37 percent of respondents reported depression and 41 percent reported clinical anxiety. But despite this, only 11 percent admitted turning to medical professionals for support. Kelly’s greatest hope in sharing his past experiences is that it will help normalize seeking treatment for mental health.

“It’s interesting that we’re very happy to go to the doctor when we’re sick physically, but when people have mental health problems, they don’t,” he says. “One of the great things NASA recognizes is there’s nothing wrong with being isolated or lonely, and they try to mitigate and be very proactive in helping people deal. They see it as so normal that they don’t even give us a choice. When I was in space for a year, every two weeks I would talk to a group of psychiatrists and psychologists we called the Brain Trust who helped me get through the experience. It was automatically in your schedule, and it helped.”

Because of the study’s results, AARP and UHF created Connect2Affect.org, and Kelly has partnered with them to help bring awareness to the health risks of social isolation. The new site features a risk-assessment questionnaire, local directories for support services like therapists and groups to combat and prevent social isolation, and chatbots designed to provide secure, private, 24/7 conversations to help rebuild connections. You’ll also want to check out these tips for staying sane during the pandemic from a therapist.

Flip the script

Kelly, who is the identical twin of Arizona’s newest senator, Mark Kelly, says it’s important to recalibrate your mindset. “Granted, my situation [in space] was different than the situation we’re experiencing today in that I knew how long I was going to be up there alone. But I couldn’t really see the end of the mission at the beginning,” he explains. “I had to put a lot of thought and preparation into how I was going to get to the end. I had to change my frame of reference on life to better my quality of life on board and to be able to perform my job at a high level. In the beginning, I tried to convince myself that my situation was extraordinary and very challenging with regard to the isolation, but it would someday be over. If people think of [the pandemic] in that context, knowing that someday this will be over, it makes it easier.”

Stop, breathe, and get centered

Taking time to clear your mind and exhale actually helps you be more productive, and Kelly says that reset can come in many forms. “People manage stress and anxiety in different ways like exercise, meditation, and counseling. I just watch my wife do yoga.” From repeating mantras to cleaning your room, there are many ways to declutter your mind and give your gray matter a break.

Stick to a schedule

“I followed a tightly controlled but varied schedule,” he explains of his time in space. “I do that [now] and especially in the beginning of this pandemic when it took me a while to get back into the groove of living in quarantine, for lack of a better word. Having a schedule with the appropriate pace is important.”

Be prepared

“My wife pointed out that I deal with managing challenges by being prepared,” he says. “Have a goal and a plan to get there. Always try to stay one or two steps ahead of the reality of the moment. At NASA, you prepare for the worst and hope for the best. If you’re prepared, you won’t be surprised.” Keep in mind that some of our everyday habits may change forever after coronavirus—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Aim for a healthy work-life balance

Kelly says it is important to take time for work, play, and sleep. All three are equally important. “If you’re working from home, schedule time for work and time not to work. When you wake up and you’re at work and you go to sleep and you’re still at work, it’s really easy to overwork yourself. That’s not good,” he aptly notes. “Schedule other activities, including time for rest, exercise, getting outside—[they’re] all important to our immune system. One thing NASA learned was that the cost of isolation was a stressed immune system, and that’s the last thing we all need right now.”

Get a hobby

Challenge yourself to learn about and try new things, whether it’s baking sourdough bread, gardening, biking, or learning to play chess. “Challenges are good for the brain. We always have to be seeking improvement,” Kelly says. “I talked to a lot of people who are using this as an opportunity to do things that they never had time for before, like learning how to play an instrument, becoming better artists, or learning a foreign language. There are so many ways that we can do that through technology.”

In Kelly’s case, it was diving into projects at the house they’d just finished building in Colorado. “Even though it’s a new house, it’s amazing the amount of stuff you still have to do when you move in,” he says. “All my spare time that I would normally use to do some kind of hobby is taken up with hanging pictures and lamps, putting furniture together, and all these little odds and ends.” Not sure where to start? Here are some easy quarantine projects you’ll wish you’d done sooner.

Stay connected with loved ones

“Schedule time with family and friends any way you can, whether it’s email, phone, or video conferencing,” Kelly says. “One of the positive things [to come] out of this is now many of us are more comfortable with technology, so we can reach out. Just because we’re isolated, it doesn’t mean have to be alone or lonely.” Just be careful not to fall for any of these common Zoom scams and pranks.

Keep a journal

“I kept a journal in space to have a record in real time because I might want to write a book someday,” says Kelly. Of course, our experiences in COVID quarantine may not be quite as exciting, but regardless, they’re significant, and they can also help you work through how you’re feeling. “I found that it was a very good outlet for me to be honest with myself and discuss with myself my feelings [about] what I was experiencing,” Kelly continues. “It’s a cathartic process, especially if you don’t have a lot of people to talk to and share with. Then, when this is all over, we’ll have a collective record of this unique time in the history of our country.” Pandemic or not, you might also want to keep a gratitude journal, which can help refocus your brain and change your outlook on life.

Communicate

Get little things off your chest often so they don’t grow into big things that are harder to survive. As Kelly notes, when you’re living and working in a confined environment for long periods of time, issues are bound to come up. The key is to not keep them bundled up. “If you’re having issues or conflicts or feeling down, you need to talk about it because conflict between people gets worse if you don’t sort it out in the beginning,” he says. “I always try to do those kinds of things in a positive way. Try not to be critical of somebody else. Maybe even be critical of yourself and say something like, ‘I think what I’m doing might be bothering you.’ It gives the opportunity to the other person to ask you what they are doing that’s getting on your nerves.”

Take reentry at your own pace

“In my case, returning from space and isolation was instantaneous, shocking, and anxiety-producing. I should’ve eased into it,” Kelly has realized in retrospect. “As we get to the end of this thing, we need to have a collective discussion on the PTSD aspect of reintroducing yourself back into normal life and how you can do that correctly. I was watching a movie the other day with my wife, and something in it triggered me. I was feeling weird watching the people interact in these very crowded environments with no social distancing and no masks. I thought to myself, Wow, if I’m feeling this watching something on TV, imagine what it’s gonna be like the first time you go to a concert or a bar.” A station leader who was isolated for a year in Antarctica has some other thoughts on dealing with this surprisingly rocky road back to normal.

Remember that we’re all in this together

astronaut Scott Kelly NASACourtesy NASASometimes simply realizing that you aren’t the only person experiencing all of these things is enough to get you through the day. “A couple of months ago, my daughter called me up and was complaining, ‘Dad, I have no social life. My life sucks.’ I said, ‘Samantha, so does everyone else’s on the planet. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic.’ She was like, ‘Oh, yeah. Right, I feel better now,'” he recounts. “This pandemic is the first time in our lives where everyone on the planet has been engaged in one singular goal. Our collective mission is to protect ourselves and get past this with as little negative impact as possible. When we look back on this, my hope is that I look back on it with memories of doing the right thing and being part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

For more on this developing situation, including how to handle challenges during the pandemic, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.

Sources: 

  • Connect2Affect: “The Pandemic Effect: A Social Isolation Report”
  • NASA: “NASA’s Twins Study Results Published in Science Journal”

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Carrie Bell
Carrie Bell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has been covering travel, entertainment, food, and other culture/lifestyle topics for nearly two decades. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest, People, Yahoo, Cosmopolitan, Fodor’s, and Bridal Guide and she is Southern California specialist for TripSavvy. She earned a BA in journalism at Humboldt State University in only three years and co-authored The Bathtub Reader: An Amusing Miscellany for the Discerning Mademoiselle.