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Tim Peake's Advice for Living in Isolation

Posted on 5th May 2020 by Mark Skinner

Astronaut Tim Peake knows a thing or two about coping in isolated environments, so who better than the author of Ask an Astronaut and the upcoming memoir Limitless to offer some guidance on how to deal with the privations of lockdown? 

Tim Peake’s lockdown haircut in space. Astronauts attend to their own self-care on the International Space Station. Space offers an environment that not only deprives astronauts of social interaction, but embodies the most demanding challenges for humans of living in isolation.

In October 1995, before I was an astronaut, I was faced with a difficult decision – one of the myriad choices we all take that chart the course of our life. In my case, I had to decide whether to give my career as an Army Air Corps officer a chance of success, or to carry on flying helicopters. As a young officer, you were expected to complete just one flying tour, lasting around two years, before taking on roles such as Adjutant or Operations Officer. These deskbound positions would guarantee early promotion and set you on a path that could eventually lead to the very top.

I chose to carry on flying helicopters.

It wasn’t through any lack of ambition that I made this decision, it was a simple case of my heart overruling my head. Ever since I could remember I had been obsessed with aircraft. I had looked to the skies and dreamed of ‘slipping the surly bonds of Earth’ as John Gillespie Magee so eloquently put it in his poem High Flight. Flying was my whole life and I wasn’t prepared to give it up.

Still, I needed to forge a new path. If I was to make myself more useful as a pilot, I had to gain experience and specialized skills. Becoming a qualified helicopter instructor seemed like a logical choice and I knew that all instructors were expected to teach combat search and rescue – the kind of skills needed if you were shot down behind enemy lines.

RAF St Mawgan, in Cornwall, is home to the Survive, Evade, Resist and Extract training organisation, otherwise known as SERE school. The three-week instructors’ course was a mixture of classroom theory and practical lessons teaching land and sea survival skills. It culminated with three days of ‘escape and evasion’ across Dartmoor, and following the inevitable capture by enemy forces a few days of resistance to interrogation were thrown in for good measure.

I learnt a lot on that course, but one fact was made abundantly clear. In survival situations, any amount of skill, technique and knowledge is absolutely useless without the will to survive. This has been true in countless situations across history, from Ernest Shackleton’s desperate journey across 1000 miles of ice and ocean, to Thailand’s Wild Boars football team, trapped underground in a flooded cave for seventeen days. The mind has the ability to remain strong long after the body has given up. We just need to learn how to tap into that inner strength.

My decision to double down as a pilot and to take the search and rescue course prepared me well for my later career as an astronaut. Of course, the ability to maintain a positive mental attitude doesn’t need to be reserved for the most extreme or direst of situations. It can be a way of life. The benefits are just as relevant when dealing with difficult family circumstances, financial problems or career and business decisions. And it’s particularly relevant to the unprecedented situation we all find ourselves in now – lockdown.

Isolation is an unusual and challenging situation. Humans are, by nature, social animals and for most of us that social interaction is profoundly important to our health and well-being. I experienced these challenges for a sustained period during my six-month mission to the International Space Station (ISS). Space offers an environment that not only deprives astronauts of social interaction, but embodies the most demanding challenges for humans of living in isolation. In space, astronauts are expected to perform at a high level for extended periods of time under stressful conditions, living in a confined space with several crewmates. Understandably, prior to any mission we undergo many months of training to prepare us for these unusual circumstances. Whilst much of this training is skills based, once again the most valuable lesson we are taught is how to adapt our way of thinking, to take control of the situation we find ourselves in and to force a positive outcome. 

Underground caves provide astronauts with an ideal training environment to rehearse the isolation and close teamwork they will experience in space.

During our astronaut training, caves were a brilliant environment for developing a positive mental attitude. If you want to make someone uncomfortable in a short space of time then getting them cold, wet, tired and hungry is a good starting point. Add to this the sensory deprivation that a cave offers and the increased levels of risk. Finally, remove people’s watches for good measure, so that they lose all sense of time or day and night passing. Now you’re talking. Sleep deprivation will make the most amicable person more than a little tetchy. Part of astronaut training usually involves a stint of seven-to-ten days living underground, exploring cave networks and developing the all-important ‘soft skills’ that are essential to maintaining cordial life on a space station in cramped quarters: teamwork, communication, leadership and interpersonal skills.

After training in caves, life on a space station is comparatively luxurious. But that’s the point. As we say in the Army – train hard, fight easy. It’s not by chance that things generally run very smoothly on the ISS. Years of experience and lessons learned by the various space agencies have resulted in a few basic tips for living in isolation:

• Maintain a schedule: The ISS is a busy place, but a schedule helps everything to run incredibly smoothly. Everyone knows what is expected of them and when – expectations are managed. Scheduling helps to avoid conflicts and gives structure to our day, allowing us to take control of our situation. It also allows us to pace ourselves – to plan our days so that we know that we can achieve our objectives. There is nothing worse than waking up thinking ‘how on Earth am I going to get everything done today?.’ If the plan is unworkable, change the plan.

• Take time for yourself: It can be the simplest thing – a coffee break, a book, a TV programme or listening to your favourite podcast. On the space station, I gave myself a five-minute break mid-morning and mid-afternoon. I could have checked emails whilst drinking my tea, or read ahead on the next activity. Instead, I went to the Cupola viewing window and gazed at Earth, or the stars. It may not sound like the most productive use of my time, but it was my time, my choice. I found that I was able to work much more efficiently for having had a few moments to myself.

Tim Peake enjoying one of his favourite pastimes in space taking photos from the cupola window. In lockdown, taking a few minutes for yourself is important for staying healthy.

• Exercise: The benefits of exercise are well documented. On the space station we had to exercise each day to prevent our bones and muscles from deteriorating due to weightlessness. But as well as maintaining a healthy body, physical activity is good for our mental health – it can lift our mood, reduce stress and anxiety and improve self-esteem. When living in isolation, these benefits become increasingly important. Whether it is a walk in the fresh air or a session with Joe Wicks in the living room, it’s important to stay healthy.

Makeshift exercise bike. Tim Peake ‘cycling’ in space. In lockdown, wherever we are, we have to make do with whatever kit we have.

• Stay connected: Never before has it been so easy to stay in touch. Even from the space station I could call any phone number (even a wrong one) and once a week have a videoconference with my family. Technology has provided us with a myriad ways to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. Social interactions are vital for our mental health, they can even boost our immune system and give us a more positive outlook on life. The old adage of a problem shared is a problem halved is as true today as it ever was.

Living in isolation can be particularly hard. In the current situation and without the benefit of years of training and preparation, many people have been immersed into an extremely unusual environment and are struggling to cope. But sometimes it takes a dramatic change in perspective to help us appreciate what is important – spending time with loved ones, the value of community, care and respect for each other and, most importantly, not to take for granted those who will look after us in our time of need. These are the lessons that I will take away from lockdown.

If you are struggling because of Coronavirus, you can find information here about:

• feeling unsafe

• going in to work

• paying bills or being unemployed

• getting food

• having somewhere to live

• mental health and wellbeing

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