Coping with confinement and isolation – Covid 19

We’re currently facing a very surreal world and an unfamiliar way of life. It’s hard to know what to expect especially from a psychological perspective. In response two psychologists from the University of Manchester have summarised their research looking at people in ICE conditions (isolated, confined and extreme).  While not the same the evidence from similar personal settings gives us some clues about what’s normal and how to cope. If nothing else the comparison makes it sound a bit more glamorous than being stuck at home – their research includes Antarctic research stations, submarines, the International Space station and expeditions to isolated corners of the world.

Here’s a summary what Dr Nathan Smith and Professor Emma Barrett identified as the key areas to consider (with a link to the full article at the bottom):

Adjustment. It typically takes up to 10 days for people going into and coming out of ICE conditions to get used to their change of environment. The same will be true as we transition into and out of life during the pandemic. Simply knowing and being aware of this can help us to process it.

Uncertainty – is not something that we humans thrive on – we cling to an assurance of ‘what will be’ and crave it even more during times of adversity. In such situations research shows that people cope better when they deliberately take a step back from what they are feeling and assess things from a rational perspective. For example, looking at the number of people who have recovered from Covid-19 as opposed to focussing on how many have died, looking at how quickly China has returned to a level of normality rather than panicking about an apocalyptic outcome.

If this is something that you’re really struggling with it may be helpful to try techniques such as cognitive reframing. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris gives some fantastic guidelines and his website offers free tools and exercises. Another approach I talk about in my book (Defining You) is emotion surfing. 

Focussing on what is within your control is beneficial during times of uncertainty, for example creating a daily routine, proactively thinking about what you are going to eat, what you watch on TV even who you talk to on the phone.

When it comes to getting things done, breaking down tasks into small goals removes some ambiguity while enabling a sense of accomplishment.

It’s also critical not to continually watch the news or spend time scrolling through social media. Stay informed yes but don’t tune in all day – this simply highlights the aspects of life that are scary and unknown.

The paradox of social proximity and social isolation. Most people who has travelled with a friend have experienced this. You choose to spend time with a person you’re really close to but within a few weeks you may well be happy never to see each other again. Sharing space with someone over prolonged periods of time, however much you may like or even love them can be really stressful. ICE settings provide learnings on how to cope with this including being consciously tolerant of others whilst also practising self-constraint.

It is important to allocate somewhere that provides personal space if you can. A place that you can retreat to if your emotions get too much (e.g. frustration, annoyance). You should tell your co-residents about this and ask them to respect your chosen space.

People who have experienced ICE settings also find that it’s absolutely critical to have open and honest conversations about issues. When things are calm it can be helpful to set out sound ground rules and agree a safe or neutral word to use when discussions get heated.

Boredom. It is inevitable that after a while people become bored with repetition and the lack of variety of confinement.  For us this won’t be as extreme as those in the Antarctic, space or on a submarine – we have far to see by simply looking out of the window, however none of us are experiencing the variation of life that we normally would. Smith and Barrett suggest introducing creative activities or new hobbies to combat this. They also refer to Ernest Shackleton’s crew on his 1908 Antarctic expedition who read aloud to each other and put on theatrical performances. In current day expeditions physical activity is typically incorporated into routines to counter monotony.

Lack of motivation. Researchers have found that low mood and lack of motivation will inevitably hit people in ICE conditions at some point. Once again an awareness of this and an acceptance that mood and motivation will peak, and trough will help. When we know that something is normal it always makes it far easier to deal with.

Ways of coping include focusing on small goals and achievements, recognising and celebrating progress and potentially sharing accomplishments with friends and family via phone calls or social media. Populations in ICE settings often have celebratory meals as a way of marking a milestone which is something that we can do at home if we’re confined with others or even over FaceTime.

Keeping a journal that captures the highs and low, worries, concerns and frustrations is a positive way of processing emotions.

Another helpful strategy is to find a ‘passion project’ to work toward while stuck in isolation or confinement.

Ultimately, it’s going to be a strange time ahead. We can try our very best to make the most of it and to keep each other going. To help our communities in any way we can even if that’s virtually. To stay home in order to stop the spread, reduce deaths and help our incredible healthcare professionals and of course to all stay safe.

Link to article by Smith and Barrett:


Harris, R. (2011). The happiness trap.

Pennebaker, J.W. (1997). Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological Science, 8, 162–6.

Roberts, D. (2013). Alone on the ice: The greatest survival story in the history of exploration. New York: W. W. Norton.

Smith, N., Kinnafick, F., & Saunders, B. (2017). Coping strategies used during an extreme Antarctic expedition. Journal of Human Performance in Extreme Environments, 13(1), 1.




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