As countries around the world move through various stages of quarantine and restrictions on public life, many people are finding themselves more isolated than they are accustomed to. Contact with someone who has the novel coronavirus can require a two-week quarantine, further restricting their movement and contact with others. For most people, this is an unprecedented level of solitude, and it can be a struggle adjusting to it.
A group of scientists who have spent weeks and even months in the field, all in relative or total isolation, have found themselves well prepared for this challenge. For them, long stretches of monotonous fieldwork in remote areas with few people around is normal.
Their collective experience has left them with one principal piece of advice: cut yourself — and everyone around you — some slack. Joana Xavier, a marine biologist from Portugal’s University of Porto, said, “People might be struggling with something that you’re unaware of, so it’s important to just be kind.” Read on for more advice these scientists have gleaned from their time in the field.
Acknowledge What You Cannot Control
Derya Gürer, a geologist from Australia’s University of Queensland, returned to land in March 2020 after almost 60 days at sea. She recalls being caught in a turbulent storm, watching the crew attempt to stabilize the ship, and realizing that she had to let go of the things that she could not control: the intensity of the storm and the steering of the ship. That enabled her to look at her worries from a different perspective — almost as an outsider.
Once back on land, she applied the same approach to her anxiety regarding isolation and the pandemic. Individual citizens have little direct control over the spread of the coronavirus, how our governments decide to handle it, and what regulations should be imposed. As a scientist, she had been trained to observe events with curiosity and her own thoughts without judgment, which has helped her navigate this uncertain time.
Step Away from Your Work
Traveling on weeks-long Antarctic cruises helped Rachel Downey, a marine biologist at The Australian National University, learn to take time to understand her own needs — both professional and personal. Work and home were inseparable on the ship, so the scientists, researchers, and crew had to know when to put work down. Downey and her shipmates found that it was very easy to be hard on themselves and their colleagues and expect consistent achievement and progress since they were always at “work.”
They had to train themselves out of that mindset and find pursuits that helped them wind down and separate themselves from their work. They purposefully took time to have drinks, play a game, or watch a film to separate the workday from leisure. This led to better mental health and work/life balance overall. Downey found that this practice gave her time to reflect on her work and how she might move forward.
Joana Xavier, a marine biologist from Portugal’s University of Porto, had a similar experience while traveling on large vessels across the Nordic, Arctic, and North Atlantic seas. She and the rest of the crew worked in 12-hour shifts, which allowed them to operate efficiently in a confined space. In addition to clearly demarcating her “on” time and her “off” time, she used specific rituals to help her relax after a shift. She used the same strategies when she returned home and went into quarantine: making a schedule, getting rest, allowing time for leisure, and managing her energy has served her well through the pandemic.
Remember That We’re All in This Together
Laura Omdahl worked for five seasons as a store supervisor at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, overseeing provisions at all three U.S. bases. Although everyone working on the bases had free meals in the station’s galley, the goods in the resupply store were highly coveted novelty or luxury items. For residents who worked long, dark hours in isolation, soft drinks, junk food, souvenirs, and extra toiletries were bright spots in their day.
The stores were resupplied only once a year, and Omdahl had to ensure that the supplies from that single shipment lasted the entire year. Doritos were the top seller — she had to enforce a rule about how many bags each person could purchase per day. Residents became angry about the restrictions at first, then came to the realization that sharing meant everyone would get some. An understanding of the need to act in keeping with the greater good helped them embrace Omdahl’s rules.
Commit to a Positive, Solution-Oriented Outlook
Chris Turney, a geoscientist and explorer from the University of New South Wales in Australia, says that people should avoid beating themselves up if they do not achieve as much as they would like during quarantine. He has learned this life lesson from his work, which involves making detailed records of past environmental conditions that have been preserved in tree rings, ice cores, and peat and lake sediment.
Researchers frequently cite the “A-Factor,” or Antarctic Factor — their own version of Murphy’s law: what can go wrong, will. Turney sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an extreme version of the A-Factor. According to him, getting everyone home safely is the primary motivating factor during research trips, which highlights the importance of a positive outlook. Ruminating on what has gone wrong only distracts from finding a solution. And in the absence of a solution, preparing for whatever comes next is one of the best steps toward protecting people’s mental health.
As many locations are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases, returning to some form of quarantine seems to be on the horizon. Although March 2020’s quarantine arrived without warning, we can be more prepared this time around — with the help of these research scientists. After having spent months in relative isolation, they suggest accepting that some things are out of our control, paying close attention to work/life balance, remaining positive, and focusing on the greater good in order to weather this difficult time.
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