Coping with Isolation: These Experts Reveal Their Top Tips

Even something as simple as a home-cooked meal can help lift your spirits
Even something as simple as a home-cooked meal can help lift your spirits | © Martin Poole / Getty Images
Photo of Sadie Whitelocks
15 April 2020

With much of the world in coronavirus lockdown, people have had to adapt to living in confinement. In a bid to stave off side-effects such as depression, loneliness and lethargy, two experts who know all about life in isolation share their experiences and give advice on how to help us cope.

Benjamin Pothier, French Nasa spacesuit tester

Pothier, 46, knows all about isolation; his research focuses on how astronauts can better prepare for living in confinement ahead of missions. The French scientist has lived in isolation many times and he once spent six weeks cooped up in the High Arctic during the dark winter months as part of his research.

To-do lists

What he calls his “most critical piece of advice”, Pothier, a PhD candidate at the University of Plymouth’s Planetary Collegium, recommends writing a to-do list. “Take time to write down proper lists and enjoy every time you tick the box in front of the task you have accomplished,” he says. “This is a very efficient way to stay busy from morning to night and keep the spirits up.”

Making a list and marking off the day’s achievements is an efficient way of getting things done | | © Cavan Images / Getty Images

But it’s not just short-term goals that are important. Pothier says it’s good to look ahead, especially as many of us don’t know how long lockdown measures will stay in place. “Try to envision larger plans on the to-do list. Maybe some home renovations, maybe learning origami at an expert level, who knows? Just try to think of any types of activities that can’t be done in a day and set targets.”

Make an inventory

With limited supplies in some grocery stores and restricted opening hours, Pothier says it’s important to prioritise medical supplies, food and household products.

He also suggests going through cupboards and getting rid of expired goods to see what extra resources are needed. It’s then a good idea to “make a list to make shopping trips more efficient”.

Make an inventory of food you already have, then create a list to make your shopping trips more effective | | © Westend61 / Getty Images

Pothier explains: “If you face in your country what we face in France right now, you will have only very limited access to stores and supermarkets, so it is good to have your list ready and buy what is critical for you.”

Take care of your living space

When it comes to staying positive in a limited space, Pothier says it’s essential to “keep your living space clean and not let dirty crockery or laundry mount up”.

He adds: “This is your habitat, be it your small apartment, or a house with a garden. Keep your living space tidy every day, do some extras on the weekend, improve your interior. Don’t experience the self-isolation as a constraint; on the contrary, try to do your best to make your home a better place to live for you and/or your family.”

Don’t let your living space get untidy and use this extra time to improve the interior | | © Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

However, he warns that unless you are experienced, don’t engage in “hazardous home renovations – it’s not the best time to pop to the emergency hospital ward because you hammered your fingers”.

Don’t count the days

Last, Pothier warns against counting the number of days you’ve been in lockdown. “This is self-isolation, not a life sentence. Keep active, busy and relaxed, but don’t count the days. Just consider the situation as the new normal you need to adapt to. Find your personal mental space inside it. And remember that you are currently on earth – our planet is our gigantic spaceship and we are all space cadets!”

Karin Jansdotter, Swedish chef in Antarctica

Like Pothier, Jansdotter, 34, knows a thing or two about living in isolation. The globetrotting chef from Sweden has been posted at an Antarctic research station with just five other people since November 2019 as part of a one-year contract.

Find time for yourself

Speaking via a high-speed internet connection from Troll station, a Norwegian base located on Queen Maud Land where the annual temperature averages -25C, Jansdotter says she starts each day alone by candlelight, “enjoying the silence”.

Karin Jansdotter has been living and working as a chef in Antartica | | Image courtesy of Karin Jansdotter

“I read my book, or I write in my journal and, most important, I make a big batch of Swedish coffee,” she says. “Early in the morning, I am most creative and spending this time alone gives me space to think.

“I have also started a great breathing routine, which centres my thoughts and sets me up for the day. It’s called the Wim Hof method, developed by a Dutch extreme athlete and it’s great. A 20-minute meditation also helps keep me sane, and I always sleep well later.”

Stay active

Along with morning meditations, another thing that helps Jansdotter keep her mental health in check is exercise. With the weather well below freezing, she says she generally uses the small gym on the base to do yoga, lift weights or run.

Jansdotter says exercise is essential to keeping sane while isolating | | © phutthiseth thongtae / Getty Images

When the sun comes out, she also takes time to enjoy the spectacular Antarctic scenery, with hikes to the surrounding snowy peaks. “Being active is really important for isolation – it gives you all those endorphins that boost your mood.”

Eat well

Being a culinary whizz, it’s no surprise that Jansdotter highlights food as a mood-booster. She recommends starting with simple recipes and working with the ingredients you have to hand. Some of her most popular recipes on the base have included ostrich steaks grilled on the BBQ and her instant apple and cinnamon ice cream made using liquid nitrogen.

Cooking and eating well can really improve morale | | © 10'000 Hours / Getty Images

Jansdotter suggests eating as a household or even via a video-calling app such as Zoom for those living alone. She adds: “Food is so important for morale here on the base, and we like to highlight the festive occasions and birthdays especially. Just being together around the dinner table acts as quality time – this is when we talk about everything and nothing. It’s almost like a therapy session.”

Communicate with people

But it’s not just talking at home. Jansdotter says it’s very important to “keep regular communications up with the outside world so you can keep conversations fresh and interesting”.

Thanks to a high-speed internet connection at the base in Antarctica, she can voice- and video-call her family and boyfriend back home.

Keeping in touch with family and friends is vital for mental wellbeing | | © 10'000 Hours / Getty Images

Another way Jansdotter communicates to the wider world is via Instagram, and she regularly posts photos via her account showing what she’s been up to – from rustling up delicious meals to a bit of daily fitness exploring the stunning local scenery.

“I’ve been living in confinement since last November and am due to leave this autumn,” she says. “I hope that the world will be a better place when I get home and that people and countries will go down the solidarity path and fight this epidemic together.”

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