Former astronaut joins Steamboat panel on self-care amid social isolation
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A retired NASA astronaut joined an expert panel discussion in Steamboat Springs on Tuesday that focused on ways people can practice self-care during this long period of social isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Astronaut Steve Swanson, a Steamboat Springs native who spent six months on the International Space Station, answered questions alongside Dr. Kristen Race, founder of Mindful Life Today; Dr. Phaedra Fegley, physician with Minds in Motion; and Rebecca Williams, personal trainer and owner of Mountain Fit.
Steamboat Pilot & Today Editor Lisa Schlichtman moderated the discussion. Below are some of the questions she posed and the panel’s answers. To watch the discussion in its entirety, visit the Pilot & Today’s Facebook page.
The stay-at-home order has meant individuals and families in our community are isolating. To Steve Swanson, could you describe your experience living in isolation at the space station?
“It starts off with two weeks of quarantine in Baikonur, which is in Kazakhstan,” Swanson began.
The training is meant to simulate life in space, crammed in small living quarters with five other people. The two weeks were slightly less intense than the real thing, he said, because they could go outside.
In space, the feeling of isolation worsened due to the realities of life on the International Space Station.
“You aren’t going to leave, you aren’t going to go outside, you are not going to do anything else but live inside that place and work there,” Swanson said.
Among the hardest experiences to deal with, he said, was being so far from his family and friends. He dealt often with feelings of loneliness and anxiety that accompany being disconnected from the people one loves.
To cope with those feelings, he maintained regular contact with his family through phone and video calls. He also could stay up to date through social media. To help his physical and mental health, he exercised on a treadmill and stationary bike.
“The biggest thing to help me stay sane was staying busy,” Swanson said.
His 12-hour shifts kept his mind off the negative emotions that could creep in and gave him a sense of purpose through the long days.
But among the greatest pleasures, he said, was getting to look down on Earth.
Apart from gazing down at the world from an orbiting satellite, people can apply the steps he took to feel less isolated — calling loved ones, staying busy and exercising — to their own lives here on Earth.
What are some of the top problems you are hearing from people in isolation? What is your advice to them?
Race compared people’s situation to being on an airplane when the oxygen masks deploy.
“You have to put your own mask on before you can help others,” she said.
What she means is that people must take care of themselves first in order to have the ability to properly care for others, including their own spouses and children. To do this, Race advises the community to focus on positive opportunities the stay-at-home order provides, such as spending more time with family and forming better habits around eating and exercise.
“I truly believe that finding the good is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” Race said.
Fegley added that staying productive or keeping homeschooled kids on task can be a particular source of stress during these times. She acknowledged that many people will not be able to work as efficiently at home. In those situations, finding ways to take it easy on oneself is an important step to avoiding further anxiety.
People also might be feeling fluctuations in their emotions, Williams said.
“I can start a day and be great,” she said. “Then at 3 p.m. I’m down in the dumps and really struggling.”
In those situations, Williams advises people to acknowledge those emotions and reach out to loved ones or a mental health professional for support.
It can be useful to distinguish between protective anxiety and harmful anxiety, Race added. Protective anxiety refers to mental alerts that tell someone to wash their hands or wear a face mask. These are helpful signals and should be acted upon.
But other forms of anxiety come as recurring fears that are outside of one’s control, such as wondering when businesses may reopen or if a loved one could become ill. While people should not ignore these fears completely, dwelling on them can make people feel miserable, Race said.
What virtual services are your organizations offering to people at this time?
Mountain Fit is offering free, livestream workout classes, Williams said. People have the option to donate if they are able. All classes are posted to watch later on Mountain Fit’s website, mountainfitsteamboat.com. The fitness studio offers a variety of workouts, from Pilates to Barre sculpting.
Mindful Life Today hosts free webinars on mental health topics like building resiliency, dealing with stress and staying positive, Race said. In May, the organization is starting an online parenting course, and Race publishes a weekly series on her social media to offer tips on such topics as mindfulness. For more information, visit mindfullifetoday.com.
Minds in Motion, a local mental health and counseling center, offers $20 group therapy sessions, according to Fegley. To sign up or for more information, go to mindsinmotionco.com/covid-19-support-services or call 970-761-2249.
What can people do at home to practice appropriate self-care?
To help stay healthy at home, the panelists had three main recommendations: maintain a healthy diet, make a schedule and practice mindfulness.
The food and drinks people consume have a major impact on both their physical and mental health, Williams said. With that in mind, she has cut out alcohol entirely because, as she explained, it is a depressant that can lead to negative emotions.
Sweets can be a nice treat in the day, but Williams advises people to limit the amount of sugar in their diet. Incorporating some type of exercise in the day, even if it is a short walk around the neighborhood, can help with cravings and promote healthy eating.
“That’s the good kind of addiction we want during this,” Williams said.
Keeping some sort of schedule provides structure to the day, Race explained. It can help with productivity and brings feelings of accomplishment and predictability.
“That routine gives us a sense of normalcy. It is common and reassuring, particularly for kids,” Race said.
Practicing mindfulness is a simple yet powerful way to assuage anxiety, Race continued. Using what she calls “micro-mindfulness exercises,” people can take just a few minutes to do a breathing exercise as they make their morning coffee or washing hands. All it takes, Race said, is a four-second inhale followed by a six-second exhale, repeated for three to five minutes. These brief exercises can bring major benefits to the brain, according to Race.
“Mindfulness is huge to create positive emotions and be more resilient,” she said.
Incorporating these into daily life is a matter of turning them into normalized behaviors. By making simple changes in life and sticking to them, people can develop more positive habits and rid themselves of unhealthy ones.
“The more I stick with a regular routine, the more I keep the habits I’ve established for my health,” Fegley said.
Race concluded the panel with a positive message to the community: “Look out for each other, be kind to each other and find the good where you can.”
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The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially frontline health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.