Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do ….

Coping with isolation,confinement and extreme settings.

Can we look to psychology to help us  find ways of coping with life in confinement and isolation during the covid-19 pandemic?

Nathan Smith and Emma Barrett have done an extensive search of the literature focussing on people living in  Isolated , Confined and Extreme (ICE) settings. These include people such as polar scientists, astronauts, submariners, oil-rig workers, cavers, and expeditioners. Although their physical context might be very different from us sitting at home on the settee, the psychological demands these people have faced and the ways they managed to deal with them can tell us a lot. Perhaps they can help us to develop ways of coping?

Astronauts are leading self isolators

Many people are in enforced quarantine for an indefinite time because they are experiencing symptoms of the virus or have been identified as part of an ‘at-risk’ population. Self confinement is often associated with  negative  psychological impacts  including emotional disturbance, depression, stress, difficulty sleeping, low mood, irritability and anger. Mass social isolation on the scale we are experiencing now is likely to result in mental health difficulties for a considerable number of people. 

Researchers have identified several factors that can mitigate the negative impact of quarantine, including protecting personal liberty and agency, minimising the total length of quarantine, ensuring clear communication and providing essential supplies such as food and medicines.However, individuals in quarantine may have little control over such factors. Governments and health authorities may control the length of time and as the lockdown becomes more severe even greater restrictions on movement may be coming into force. Against this backdrop should we look at evidence from individuals and groups that choose to go and live and work in isolated, confined, and extreme (ICE) settings?


To help people to cope with life in isolation and confinement during quarantine, it would be helpful to identify effective strategies that they themselves can take to deal with the psychological demands. Antarctic scientists and astronauts in space stations self isolate for many months at a time. Like ICE populations, a quarantined population under covid-19 rules will likely experience periods of monotony and boredom, suffer from low mood and motivation, and need to tolerate being in close proximity to a small number of other people, while potentially separated from other friends and family for long periods of time.

Researchers have come up with 5 main areas where we can learned from people living in ICE environments

  • The need to adapt
  • Threat,danger and uncertainty
  • Monotony and boredom
  • Low mood and motivation
  • Being too close and too far apart
Antarctic research living space

The need to adapt

When transitioning into and out of unusual environments, it normally takes a few days (up to 10 days) for people to adjust to their new situation. Knowing and being aware that this is likely to be the case can be helpful, allowing people to look ahead to a time when things will gradually improve as the conditions become more normalised. Establishing a routine is the most common way to deal with this. This brings about a sense of control and helps to reduce uncertainty

Threat , danger and uncertainty

The uncertainty of not knowing what lies ahead, especially in times of adversity, can lead to feelings of anxiety and fear. People who have experienced confinement in extremes describe ‘detaching’ emotionally from the situation and focusing on thinking rationally about the actual risks faced and what can be done to minimise those risks. We covered this in an earlier article on anxiety. People in ICE situations emphasise the importance of staying in the present and not being too distracted by the end point. Instead, they try to break down the task or challenge (in the present case being stuck in isolation) and focus on the most important, achievable, and immediate tasks: what can be done over the next hour, day or week 

Monotony and boredom

As isolation and quarantine measures continue, monotony and boredom will likely set in.  People are getting creative about how they can entertain themselves with or without screens and digital media being involved. Variety is important. From the earliest days of Polar exploration, people in ICE contexts have learned the value of making their own entertainment in extreme environments. Sources of distraction for Ernest Shackleton’s crew on his 1908 Antarctic expedition included a wind-up gramophone and books that they read aloud to each other. The covid- 19 isolation period will probably usher in greater interest in virtual reality as a means of escaping whilst remaining in one place. Virtual reality headsets are being used to help people deal with bipolar disorder in a clinical setting but they can also take you any where in the world to experience a 360 degree sensory experience.

In true conditions of sensory deprivation, with little external stimulation and limited access to outside resources, shifting focus internally and using techniques such as self-talk, visualisation or breathing practices and meditation can be also be helpful. These techniques can be used to create a sense of personal control when other aspects of the environment cannot be changed. 

Low mood and motivation

Knowing that it is perfectly normal for mood and motivation to ebb and flow and that there will be some good days and some bad days can be comforting.Ways of coping with low mood and motivation in ICE conditions include acknowledging progress and focusing on small achievements to help foster a sense of achievement and control. Teams living in ICE settings often focus on celebratory events like shared meals and birthdays.

Today I got invited to my very first Zoom birthday party ( bringing my own cake and food and drinks of course). Having or finding a sense of purpose is likely to be helpful during the isolation and quarantine period. Individuals in ICE settings often talk about completing projects, taking online courses and learning new skills as a way of staying motivated and providing focus. This might really help people working from home.

Being too close and too far apart

Being too close to people for long periods of time can be stressful and many groups of people living in ICE situations discuss the importance of being tolerant of other people and to practice self restraint. One way of reducing the likelihood of conflict is by identifying an area of personal space, a place where someone can retreat to in times of frustration. 

Expedition teams often also talk about developing team norms that mean if a person you are living and working closely with is doing something irritating, it is okay to have an open and honest conversation about why and resolve the problem before it leads to further tension and potential arguments. Establishing ground rules are important.

Being separated from family and friends through forced isolation can be very difficult and messaging and video calling platforms will come in to their own now to allow human connections to be maintained . Research shows that while this is positive on the whole there can be negative impacts if there are not clear lines of communication about when to call. Lastly the content of the calls can also affect morale and it goes without saying that over exposure to social media where you have little or no control over the content can be seriously negative.

Add in children and pets into the mix and things get even more interesting!

– Dr Nathan Smith, PhD is a Research Fellow in Psychology, Security and Trust at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on the psychology of performance and health under conditions of extreme stress. See also ‘From underworlds to outerworlds‘.

– Professor Emma Barrett, PhD, CPsychol is a Professor in Psychology, Security and Trust at the University of Manchester. One of her research interests is humans in extreme environments and in 2014 she co-authored the book Extreme: Why some people thrive at the limits. 

2 replies »

  1. On reading this article – I’m not sure if I should write what I was prompted to write, as it’s not about quite the same thing – I think I will ….
    Thing is…I, and some other people, feel isolated a lot of the time. There’s a line in a song by Syd Barrett ( poor man) – “Inside me I feel, alone and unreal.” That’s how he felt, and he didn’t manage to cope with it – at all.
    It’s how I feel a lot of the time – alone and unreal.
    I‘m writing this to say – (and I might get into bother as folk might think I’m making light of a big thing – I’m not) – here goes…
    I feel like that a lot of the time, so – being actually physically isolated, isn’t getting to me, much. I have Mike here, and me and the neighbours have had some shouted conversations with each other, at a safe distance. We’re doing alright – feeling very fortunate to live where we live and have the neighbours we have.
    But – it’s a state pf mind, sometimes more, sometimes less – it’s how I am, these days, anyway. And no, I don’t take medication for it – it was mis-management of medication that put me here.
    So (and I am making a bit of a mess of describing this ) – I, and others, might not be finding it a lot harder to deal with feeling isolated, than we normally do.
    Could be said to be a benefit of being as we are!

    The state of feeling isolated, in yourself, can be as strong as the state of being physically isolated.

    We deal with it as best we can – some more successfully than others. I’ve written along these lines in TON before

    And I’ve written something else, about holding on, which might turn up.

    I’ll stop now – not sure if this makes sense.

    Just – Hold On Folks – hold on.

    • Totally agree Bernie. Many people have similar thoughts and might be wondering what the fuss is all about. The point of the article as ever was to get people thinking. Thanks for thinking and responding.

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