From astronauts: 5 ways of coping with anxiety, loneliness

It’s called the third-quarter effect: a slump in productivity, morale and health felt around the halfway point of a prolonged period of isolation. 

It’s normal, and predictable, according to Dorit Donoviel, director of the NASA-funded Translational Research Institute for Space Health and professor of space medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. 

“It’s not you,” Donoviel said. 

This slump has been seen in all kinds of experiences, from a 520-day Russian isolation experiment, ended in in 2011, to the Ernest Shackleton Endurance expedition in Antarctica, ended in 1916.

For the millions of Americans socially distancing at home since March, the adrenaline  rush of the first few months have worn off and the novelty of mastering new protocols is gone. 

As winter approaches, Americans are working to cope with the loneliness that accompanies the fight against the spread of the coronavirus. 

So we turned to experts at figuring out how to endure anxiety, loneliness and social separation safely and sanely. 

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health is NASA’s partner for deep space health research. Headquartered at Baylor College of Medicine, the institute is funding cutting-edge solutions to the behavioral health and performance risks expected on the three-year journey to Mars that NASA is planning. 

Astronauts and scientists have learned a lot about how to manage loneliness — tips that feel especially relevant today, and they will share them as part of a storytelling event at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Oct. 21 on the Storytellers Project website.

The Institute is part of, a new website with insights and tips about how to stay emotionally connected and resilient. The site is in partnership with Humana, the national presenting sponsor of Storytellers Project.

While new solutions are needed, there are lessons we’ve already learned from space travelers that also apply to life in quarantine: 

1. Pursue meaningful work 

“Make something your mission,” said Donoviel. “It must be meaningful and important to you, personally, not just a list of tasks.” 

For example, an astronaut’s day is on a strict schedule, with time for experiments, maintenance, calls, meals, and exercise. But each thing is central to mission success, so people feel a sense of purpose even when doing a seemingly mundane task.

“If you have lost your job, the problem can be lots of things feel less meaningful,” said Donoviel. “But this then might be a time to volunteer, or double down on family and relationships, letter writing…” 

NASA astronauts, from left, Rex Walheim, Jack Fischer and Cady Coleman, cheer as they watch the landing of the Orion test flight on a television at the Press Site at the Kennedy Space Center, Friday, Dec. 5, 2014, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The unmanned test flight ended 4½ hours after it began. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

2. Communicate with loved ones 

Talking to people is not always about communicating information as much as it’s about creating space to be together, said retired astronaut Cady Coleman of Shelburne Falls, Mass. Coleman said she learned this is true for talking to children, or adults, when she would call home from space.

“With my son, we would read books together instead of talking when he was little,” she said. 

3. Get exercise 

Good news, we have a real advantage over astronauts. On the International Space Station, the crew must exercise two hours daily to maintain bone and muscle health. Thanks to gravity, only a few minutes a day on Earth can make a difference. Countless studies have shown regular aerobic exercise decreases tension, elevates mood, improves sleep, and boosts self-esteem. 

4. Make meals matter 

In space, mealtime is still a daily ritual, and space food has come a long way from ’60s-era Tang. NASA’s food scientists have developed a variety of meals to give astronauts choices, and options to share with their international counterparts. 

While social isolation makes meal sharing with others outside our bubbles difficult, cooking with those in your bubble and trying new flavors can make the drudgery of dinner prep into a collective time for connecting. 

5. Reminders a loved one

Keeping reminders of our loved ones close can help when the people themselves are far away. Astronaut Nicole Stott spent 104 days in space and brought a T-shirt from her high school and a watercolor paint set. Stott’s creative side comes from her mother, and she reconnected with the arts in space. 

Hear more tips and insights when a group of astronauts and scientists share true, first-person stories as part of the Storytellers Project’s show, “Farthest You’ll Ever Be From Home” at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on Oct. 21 on YouTube,

Need to know

  • What: “Farthest You’ll Ever Be From Home”
  • Where: The Storytellers Project’s Facebook Page, YouTube channel and website.
  • When: Oct. 21, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT

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