Health

Polar Explorers Talk About How to Keep Your Cool in Isolation

VICE turned to extremely established experts for advice on managing our mindsets while disconnected from society.
May 14, 2020, 6:41pm
An abandoned polar research station.
zanskar via Getty Images
howtostayin
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Humans are social creatures—given the choice, most of us would like some contact with our fellow people. The rare, pure misanthrope aside, it’s mentally taxing to be involuntarily, persistently alone. It’s why solitary confinement is considered torture. And while the social distancing and staying at home required to slow the spread of COVID-19 is nothing like being in prison (with apologies to Ellen and the various armed anti-lockdown protestors), it does take a toll. Zoom happy hours and meme-sharing can only do so much to stave off cabin fever.

The COVID-19 lockdown forced many of us into isolation like we’ve never experienced, and we’ve already seen many of the strange and inspiring ways people work through feeling disconnected. If you’re still feeling adrift, though, you’re not alone. For advice on coping with lockdown, we turned to research scientists who’ve hunkered down in one of the most desolate, inhospitable places on earth: Antarctica. Let their hard-won wisdom guide you in these strange and uncertain times.

How does what we’re going through now compare to your experience in Antarctica?

Missy Eppes, Professor of Earth Sciences, UNC Charlotte: I was doing research on rock cracking in the dry valleys of Antarctica. So I not only went to McMurdo Station, but from there I deployed out to the dry valleys. It was myself and two other women, the three of us living in a tent, in the dry valleys for a little over three weeks by ourselves. You stay focused on your work, but at the same time, you really have very little communication with anyone else on the planet. It really became clear how isolated we were later in the trip; it was one of the last days we were out in the field and a storm came—hurricane force winds. We realized that if our tents blew away, we had no one to come help us until the storm was gone.

Brent Goehring, assistant professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Tulane University: My job is to go and collect geology samples, and quite often they're in remote locations like Antarctica. Often the hardest part is just getting to the location. In many ways, it's analogous to right now how we have restricted travel. The weather often restricts our travel. So there are different frustrations. But there's also a lot of similar frustrations because all you want to do is get to your field sites, safe from the main US research base, but weather or mechanical failures are conspiring against you and you're stuck. And so it's a question of, what do you do to kill time and not get frustrated with the lack of control?

Trista Vick-Majors, assistant professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University: Most people who work down there, depending on their project or their role, you can be pretty isolated—you can be isolated in that you are in an isolated place. But you are in very close quarters with the same group of people for a period of time. Or you can be a bit more isolated where you're, instead of being in a big research station with a whole bunch of people, you might be on a field team with just two other people. And so you're out in these camp sites, in a very small group for an extended period of time. And so, you know, in that regard you're never completely alone. That's actually something that people sometimes miss, when they get down there is that you can't, it can be hard to get your own space. But at the same time, you are incredibly isolated from the rest of the world.

Do you experience any strange mental effects being that far away from everyday life?

Vick-Majors: Sometimes I have forgotten things that are normal pieces of information that are a normal part of my life, like I’ll go to use my ATM card and realize that I don't remember my PIN number anymore. And this is, you know, a number that I've known for years. Your brain kind of shuts off. Maybe it's shutting off things that it thinks you don't need, but they’re just gone and can't recall them. But it can be very disorienting.

A lot of advice for coping with the lockdown emphasizes the power of routine: get up, put your clothes on, stick with a regimen. Did you find that kind of structure useful?

Goehring: One of the best things is quite often we're always busy. And so the best advice I can have is try to stay busy. Keep your mind occupied. And so you know, many, a lot of people probably look at these recent events as the ability to do nothing. And it's great for a while, but I think most people will find that staying busy is the best part, the time passes more quickly.

Missy Eppes: We didn't plan it and it wasn't written down, but every morning we would all come to the common space and fix our own breakfast, and then just sort of retreat to our book or reading or whatever. Something personal, even though we were all there in the same space. Then we would do our tasks, but we would each day stop for a break and we were able to leave each other, sort of mentally separate even if we couldn’t physically separate from each other.

What are some things that helped you deal with being so cut off from the rest of the world?

Missy Eppes: One thing we did that felt social, but at the same time didn't require interaction was we read out loud to each other. We would find books or things that we thought were interesting. That gave us a way to sort of be together without having the pressure of having to talk or interact. My husband had sent me a box of trashy romance novels—I used to read romance novels and I guess he remembered that. I don’t necessarily recommend that for families. We also had Journey Thursdays, where the only music we listened to was by Journey.

Vick-Majors: I actually blogged a lot my first season. That was my way of sharing with my family—and also just staying centered. It kept me from taking the experience for granted and really helped me process all of the new things that I was seeing and experiencing.

Goehring: We've watched movies together rather than individually. You know, somebody's gotten their laptop out and we take a movie night. Quite often you find yourself imitating movies and that can turn into a stand up comedy show.

A lot of what we’re talking about is just getting through time, but did you find any unexpectedly positive aspects to being so isolated?

Vick-Majors: In some ways it is kind of freeing to have permission to be disengaged from certain things. You're expected to be surviving in this bubble, so for even just a brief period of time, it's okay to not worry about other stuff. I do find that to be a bit freeing. The other thing that it does, which can be good or bad depending on a person's situation and outlook: it allows you to be really engaged with where you are and be mindful of the moment, and what you're doing, and what really matters. That can be something that's harder to find when it’s wrapped up in the activities of normal daily life.

Missy Eppes: I'm a working mom, and the chaos of managing a family and my job is hard from day to day. And now, with the coronavirus, having to do all of that under one roof, manage all of that together is a completely different type of isolation than when I was in the field. I literally only had one thing to think about each day and one person to take care of each day.

As far as the mental side of coping with isolation, did you learn anything about managing your mindset?

Vick-Majors: One thing that really helps is to remember that it is not forever. When I'm down there, it's temporary. Even though ostensibly we're all enjoying being down there and doing our work, sometimes it's hard—you're away from your family; you don't have all the freedoms that you might have at home; you can't just leave and go for a walk wherever you feel like and that can be hard. I guess I kind of give myself—I don't know how to say it besides just give myself permission to exist in that space. And just know that that's where I am for that period of time.

Goehring: When we're in Antarctica, we often will build a snowman. Or snowpeople. Silly things like that can oftentimes be a great outlet. Essentially, don’t take yourself too seriously.

Missy Eppes: During one storm, we had 80 mile an hour winds; we were literally holding together the poles of our tents so they wouldn't fly apart. We walked out afterward and saw this little terry cloth pot holder—you put rocks on everything to keep them from blowing away, and this little pot holder had a tiny rock on it, maybe the size of a pea. We lost it with laughter, belly laughing so hard there. That was probably the most at risk I've ever been in my life, yet we laughed at that ridiculous pot holder. I think that that's a take home message: Life looks terrifying, but what we’re going through right now is ridiculous, and you have to find the humor in the ridiculousness.