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Lifelines: Astronaut Training Helpful For Isolation During COVID-19


The coronavirus pandemic has led to intense isolation for many people as they've been stuck inside their homes to help prevent the spread of the virus.

Isolation is hard on everyone, but it can be particularly difficult for those who've experienced trauma.

NHPR's new series Lifelines is taking a close look at trauma in the time of COVID-19. We wanted to know what kind of resources are out there for dealing with isolation.

Dr. Jay Buckey is a former astronaut and now professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College. Buckey helped develop the PATH Program,  an online training program for astronauts who are isolated in space.

But the program isn't just for astronauts. It's available for free to anyone with Internet access, and Buckey says it can be useful for people who are struggling with isolation right now because of COVID-19. 

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Buckey to find out how.

(Editor's note: this transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)  

Rick Ganley: You experienced intense isolation yourself as an astronaut. That's not something we usually hear about. Can you tell us about your experience?

Jay Buckey: Yes. So I would say that I was actually a short duration astronaut. So I flew for 16 days on the space shuttle Columbia, and ours was a very busy mission. But it wasn't the intense isolation that people are experiencing for long duration space flights, or for being months at time in Antarctica or what people are experiencing now. Living in isolation confined with just a few other people is a challenging thing to do, and it can be done successfully. But it often leads to things like, you know, interpersonal conflict, stress or a low mood. And so what we've been working on is to develop self-help tools that people can use on their own, at their own time, anonymously to give them tips and skills to deal with these kinds of things.

Rick Ganley: So tell me more about how it got developed and is it something that continues to be developed? Does it get informed by new research as time goes on?

Credit Courtesy Mark Washburn
Dr. Jay C. Buckey is a professor of medicine at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine.

Jay Buckey: We have it deployed to the Antarctic stations, the Australian Antarctic stations where it's being used there to get their feedback on how they use it, what content they like, what other content they would want to have. It got started because I've been very interested in the barriers to long duration spaceflight. And one of the barriers is the psychological challenge. It's really tough, you know, as I said, to be isolated and confined with a small group of people.

So the programs themselves are based on what's called cognitive behavioral principles, which as the name suggests has to do with cognitions or how you're thinking about your situation, which is very important, and behaviors -- what actions you're taking in order to deal with the situation you're in.

Rick Ganley: So, you don't have to be an astronaut to get some benefits from this?

Jay Buckey: You don't, because the situations that people experience, it's not so much the space flight, it's the isolation and confinement that I think a lot of people could and could get some benefit.

Rick Ganley: Let's talk about some of the effects that isolation can have on someone.

Jay Buckey: So, I mean, I think one thing that can happen is that if you're at home with just some other family members or roommates or whatever, it may create a situation where you have some things that people don't agree about or people are getting on each other's nerves, or they haven't really worked out some things about who's doing what around the house and how are things supposed to run. And those kind of conflicts can really get out of hand if people don't manage them well.

So there's a whole section on conflict about how to think about how conflicts develop, how to communicate well, so that you're not inflaming a situation, and then also how to negotiate in situations where the relationships matter. Because when we're isolated like this we're with people who we really care about, who are important to us. And so those long-term relationships matter and we need to be able to deal with these disputes in a way that isn't going to blow up that relationship in the process. So those are some of the skills that are there for the conflict session.

Rick Ganley: What about people who are completely isolated alone, living alone?

Jay Buckey: Yeah, that's tough. That is tough. And I think there, what we have in the mood programs is based on problem solving treatment is what it's called. And there the idea is to help people think about problems that they have that they have some control over, because often what can happen, people start to feel hopeless, they're disengaged. They just stop working on things. And so the idea is to help people see what are some problems that they have control over that they could work on in a reasonable amount of time, that there aren't a lot of barriers to solving, and then brainstorm some solutions and then come up with an action plan. And those kind of things can really help people who are experiencing mood problems from being isolated.

For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
Mary McIntyre is a senior producer at NHPR.
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