Astronaut Scott Kelly offers priceless tips on how to handle isolation

Astronaut Scott Kelly offers priceless tips on how to handle isolation
Image via NASA.

You want to talk about “social distancing?” Here’s someone who really knows what that’s like, and how to deal with it.


Scott Kelly spent nearly a year hanging out in a large, floating metal box called the International Space Station.  And unlike for most of us, the option of “going outside” was somewhat more limited. In a piece published for the New York Times, Mr. Kelly shares some well-tested advice on living in relative isolation from others, “from someone who has been there.”

Number one: Put yourself on a schedule.

On the space station, my time was scheduled tightly, from the moment I woke up to when I went to sleep. Sometimes this involved a spacewalk that could last up to eight hours; other times, it involved a five-minute task, like checking on the experimental flowers I was growing in space. You will find maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to a different work and home life environment. When I returned to Earth, I missed the structure it provided and found it hard to live without.

He advises everyone to deliberately pace themselves and make regular, scheduled time for fun activities. You’re probably in it for the long haul, and you need to approach it that way.

And don’t forget to include in your schedule a consistent bedtime. NASA scientists closely study astronauts’ sleep when we are in space, and they have found that quality of sleep relates to cognition, mood, and interpersonal relations — all essential to getting through a mission in space or a quarantine at home.

Kelly recalls how much he missed the ability to go outside and experience nature while he was in space. He and his fellow astronauts would play recordings of bird sounds and the wind rustling through the trees. It helped. And he notes that as uncomfortable as staying home for long periods may seem, most of us have the option of going outdoors, for at least part of the day. Obviously the degree to which you can “go out” depends on where you live and your physical condition. But he says if you can, do so.

Research has shown that spending time in nature is beneficial for our mental and physical health, as is exercise. You don’t need to work out two and a half hours a day, as astronauts on the space station do, but getting moving once a day should be part of your quarantine schedule (just stay at least six feet away from others).

Get a hobby. Read books (not online—real books). Or write books. Or keep a journal, practice a musical instrument, learn an art or some type of craft. Or take pictures, like the one at the top of this Diary, taken by Kelly from the International Space Station.

Get connected—and keep connected:

Even with all the responsibilities of serving as commander of a space station, I never missed the chance to have a videoconference with family and friends. Scientists have found that isolation is damaging not only to our mental health, but to our physical health as well, especially our immune systems. Technology makes it easier than ever to keep in touch, so it’s worth making time to connect with someone every day — it might actually help you fight off viruses.

I talked to an old friend today on the phone today for about an hour. No texting bullshit, just a real conversation. Best time I’ve spent all week.

Kelly also advises we listen to real experts rather than relying so much on social media for information. If you want valid information, go to a valid source. Kelly recommends, and cites, the World Health Organization and the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Research Center.

And please, remember those who aren’t reading Daily Kos and instead may be struggling, without knowing quite what to do with themselves or their loved ones.

One of the side effects of seeing Earth from a the perspective of space, at least for me, is feeling more compassion for others. As helpless as we may feel stuck inside our homes, there are always things we can do — I’ve seen people reading to children via videoconference, donating their time and dollars to charities online, and running errands for elderly or immuno-compromised neighbors. The benefits for the volunteer are just as great as for those helped.

Who am I to argue with this guy?

[Scott Kelly’s brother, fellow former astronaut Mark Kelly, is running as the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in the state of Arizona]

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