Astronauts and neuro occupational therapy: It's action for brain injury week 2021

on Sunday, 16 May 2021. Posted in News, Blog

Astronauts and neuro occupational therapy: It's action for brain injury week 2021

Isolated living during a pandemic lockdown is “just like what we did on board the International Space Station,” retired NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson remarked in an interview with America’s CBS This Morning Show. [1]

Or, perhaps, to put it in Star Trek terms, it’s like being teleported to a different world and having to get on with it until Scotty ‘beams’ you back to normality.

For those with a brain injury, however, there often isn’t a way back.

Existing in an isolated ‘parallel universe’, where some things are the same but so many aren’t, may last a lifetime.

But understanding isolation should be easier for us all now that we’ve had a taste of covid-19 enforced lockdowns.

So, as the country recovers from the virus, Headway’s annual Action for Brain Injury campaign this week is a timely reminder of all those facing ‘a life of lockdown’.

 

   Our global recovery from the pandemic must leave no one behind. 

UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. [2]

 

No mission team would leave an astronaut floating in space without a lifeline.

“Our space station crew became our family in orbit,” Peggy Whitson said in her CBS interview, “and we had to not only work with them throughout the day, but we couldn't go home at night.”

And no astronaut would survive without the support of the mission team.

“All people are inescapably interconnected,” writes Scott Kelly, a fellow retired astronaut reflecting on lockdown isolation for The New York Times. [3]

“And the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be.”

 

 

In all corners of the Earth, people sent into ‘orbit’ due to brain injury find themselves suddenly alone, in unknown surroundings, reliant on multi-disciplinary teams of strangers.

And during the pandemic, confined to home or community settings with reduced, if any, support, many are largely reliant on satellite-enabled communication such as the internet to connect with the world outside their windows.

So, what ground control guidance on isolation survival are these two American ex-astronauts transmitting?

Well, nothing out of this world to the ears of neuro occupational therapists (OTs), as it transpires, since the following star strategies are all advocated by OTs too!

 

Loud and clear

Keeping up communication is key, Peggy advised. "You have to be able to communicate effectively,” she said.

 

   You don't get to pick your crew. You're just going to be up there, and you have to make the best of whatever situation.   

 

And Scott highlighted how vital video conferencing was to stay in touch with folks on Earth – both in space and during the pandemic.

He recommended regular calling throughout lockdown to maintain support networks and help fend off loneliness. [4] [5]

 

Shoot for the stars

A big factor in ensuring astronauts stay upbeat in their environment is keeping in mind the “higher purpose” of their work, in their case, furthering human knowledge.

But “higher purpose" – or a wider goal – takes on another meaning when a deadly virus forces isolation.

"Covid-19 gives us a higher purpose much like being in space does because we are saving lives by quarantining," Peggy said.

"It is important to understand that bigger purpose and to embrace that purpose to give you reason and rationale for continuing to put up with the situation."

 

Terrestrial activity

The beating heart of occupational therapy - activity - is a universal means to knock isolation on the head, wherever you are in the universe.

“I would do the extra work that I'd been thinking about doing,” Peggy recalled of the times during her record-breaking 665 days in space when feelings of isolation started to creep in.

"What are the things that you would do if you had more time?” she asked. “Is it to read? Is it to maybe write poetry or do art? What is it that has been…in the back of your head?" 

 

Routine? Roger that.

Scott liked life shipshape during his 520 days in space as he found it helped him adjust to the isolated lifestyle.

“On the space station, my time was scheduled tightly, from the moment I woke up to when I went to sleep,” he said.

“Sometimes, this involved a spacewalk that could last up to eight hours.

 

   Other times, it involved a five-minute task, like checking on the experimental flowers I was growing in space.   

 

“You will find maintaining a plan will help you and your family adjust to a different work and home life environment.”  

 

Burn-up buffers

Planning daily activities at a pace that suits you [6] and mixing in some fun stuff is essential, Scott advises.

"Take time for fun activities. I met up with crewmates for movie nights, complete with snacks, and binge-watched all of Game of Thrones - twice," he said.

He also recommended taking up hobbies such as reading, playing instruments, art and keeping a journal. [7]

 

Down to earth

Take solace in nature, Scott recommends. Its absence out in space, he noticed, affected his mood.

"After being confined to a small space for months, I actually started to crave nature — the colour green, the smell of fresh dirt, and the feel of warm sun on my face," he said.

“I appreciate that in our current predicament [the covid pandemic], I can step outside any time I want for a walk or a hike — no spacesuit needed.

 

   Research has shown that spending time in nature is beneficial for our mental and physical health, as is exercise. [8]   

 

More about Headway’s Action for Brain Injury Week 2021 and lives in lockdown here: ABI week 2021 A life of lockdown

Further advice on coping through isolation and other issues surrounding brain injury:

Brain injury and me - Anne's top tips for self-isolation

Advice and information about the coronavirus from UKABIF

Top 5 tips for coping with self-isolation following a brain injury from The Brain Injury Group

 

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