Where 2020 felt like a never-ending February, 2021 has started off with a glimmer of hope and a laundry list of challenges.
Two authorized COVID vaccines mean there’s a real chance that, in the United States at least, the pandemic might come to an end by this fall. But with cases still percolating across the country, the only real thing that most of us can do is wait — for positivity rates to keep falling, to get vaccinated, and for the world to return to normal.
But, as you probably realized over the last year, waiting
sucks. It’s boring. It’s hard. Without being able to see loved ones, it’s lonely. And it can feel ever the more pointless when you know that, come August or September or October, you’ll (hopefully) be back to hanging out indoors, going on beach vacations, and hugging everyone in sight, just because you can.
That’s why we asked women with lots of experience in solitude, pushing themselves to the limits or living in extremes, how they cope with tough situations. These women — who live in vans, ranch in the middle of nowhere, do research in Antarctica and space, and more — shared their
tips for mental resilience in the hopes that their advice might help you, too.
Read on for the fascinating ways nine women maintain their sense of hope and optimism under unique circumstances.
Focus On The Present Brenda Hall , University of Maine professor and geologist
I was 21 when I did my first Antarctic research trip. Back then, in 1990, Antarctica was more isolated than it is now. You’d leave the U.S. on the first of October, and nobody heard from you until February. We tried to keep things light and humorous, even when conditions were miserable. If we were really cold, we’d dance around, tell jokes, or toss rocks at a target. Anything to keep ourselves active and warm.
We learned to focus on the present. If you arrive in October and think, “Oh my goodness, I'm here for three months,” you'll never get through it. There are tons of reasons why something you've been counting on might not happen. Maybe the plane you’re expecting couldn’t land because the weather’s bad, or another group ran out of food, so the pilot had to fly to them first. You’ve got to accept what you can’t change and try to make the best of it.
Learn To Ask For Help Emma Demorest , #VanLife TikToker
I got my van, Thelma, two years ago, the summer after my sophomore year of college. Moving into a van was a big change for me after having everything I needed provided to me in the dorm.
One thing I’ve learned having Thelma is that if something goes awry, that’s on me. At the same time, living in a van, there’s an immense sense of vulnerability, because everything you own is in this space. Before I had Thelma, it was really hard for me to ask for help. But Thelma has had a dead battery more times than I can count — she’s a fighter, but she definitely dies out. So I had to get comfortable saying, “Hey, I need help.” And I learned that people want to help you way more than you’d think. The more familiar you can get with yourself, I learned, the more at peace you become with taking on the unknown.
Pay Attention To Your Inner Self Anushka Fernandopulle , Buddhist meditation teacher, Spirit Rock Teachers Council
I spent the years after university in various contemplative retreat settings — I went to monasteries in Sri Lanka, Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India, and practiced in the U.S. I learned a lot about how the mind works. As you meditate, you learn to cultivate the more resilient aspects of mind and not foster the parts that are more harmful.
When it comes to the pandemic, it helps to pay attention to one’s inner world. We’re on the cusp of having vaccinations and herd immunity, but we’re not there yet. It’s easy for people to make decisions that aren’t the best for public health based on looking forward, or out of a sense of restlessness. Tuning in and being able to recognize that restlessness is what’s driving you to book that trip, or host that gathering, lets you recognize that you don’t have to be driven by that sense.
Get Some Perspective Emmie Sperandeo , traveling ranch hand and photographer
I’ve been traveling the country in my RV with my dog, Johnny Boy, going to different ranches and learning the land this past year. Dealing with the pandemic mentally has been the toughest thing. What helps me put it in perspective is riding through places that feel like time capsules. I was moving range cows in rural parts of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado, where there are all these abandoned homesteads. There are entire villages with cars still parked at people’s houses, just deteriorating down to their frames. I’d sit there and think about all the people who lived there, who had full lives with their own problems. A hundred years later, they’re all gone. That helps me think about how everything is temporary — all the problems we’re facing, but also the good things we have. You have to remind yourself that it’s not going to be like this forever.
Practice Your Communication Skills Jessica Meir , astronaut
I find isolation much more difficult on Earth than in space. In space, it’s part of the mission — we train for it. If you look out the window of the International Space Station (ISS) at the vacuum of space, you understand why you’re isolated. Plus, being surrounded by exciting things compensates for any negative effects of being alone. But here on Earth, we don't expect to be shut inside, unable to see family and friends, and have to go about our normal daily lives.
To cope with isolation, it’s really important to stick to a schedule even though your life has drastically changed. Make an effort to communicate with people, too — we have something similar to Zoom on the ISS to talk with our loved ones on Earth. As astronauts, we train to live with a small group of people — how to work together, to listen and lead, to practice both self-care and team care. Everyone has little idiosyncrasies that are annoying in close confines, but you need to understand how to deal with them and make it less stressful for the other person.
Balance The Heavy With The Light Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel , community organizer, advocate, and runner
In September, I did a 360-mile prayer run from Bears Ears to Salt Lake City, Utah, with 10 other natives. It was five days of relay running — 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., 27 to 65 miles a day — in prayer for relatives who were taken by COVID-19, as well as for missing and murdered Indigenous relatives and Black brothers and sisters.
As serious as our reasons for running were, we spent a lot of time making each other laugh as a kind of medicine. Baby Yoda was the theme of the trip, so we had a stuffed animal mascot. There was one 113-degree day, so we’d throw water on whoever was running and cheer them on. I’d watch an episode of
Schitt’s Creek or The Office at night to let go of that day’s emotions. In the morning, I had my routine — oatmeal, stretching, listening to music. When it was my turn to run, I would tune everyone else out and appreciate the landscape.
Running has been my outlet for so many things, but especially since the stay-at-home orders happened in March. The biggest thing I want to stress is that we all have the opportunity to have an impact, whether it’s through a sport or something else.
Develop A Prayer Practice Sr. Chelsea Bethany Davis, a religious sister with the Daughters of St. Paul
One of the beautiful things about religious life is that we pray out loud together at least twice a day. The number one thing that helped me [during the pandemic] was to be faithful to prayer. I knew that at the end of the day, no matter what I was experiencing, I could bring it to the One who loves me most — to God. Those honest conversations were what got me through these past 10 months.
I’m going to do the very “nunly” thing and suggest to you, dear reader, to make time in your day to pray. That’s not to say that we have to negate or pray away the difficulty, but prayer is a relationship with God. If you have trouble making that time to pray, or even just getting out of bed in the morning, find a friend who you can lean on who expects you to show up consistently. And please, be gentle with yourself. This is a weird time.
Stay Realistically Optimistic Amber Smith, director of the Western Landowner Alliance’s Women in Ranching Program , ranch steward
Ranchers are phenomenally optimistic. There can be two years of extreme drought, and during the growing season, the conversation will be, “We just got two-tenths of rain earlier this month, if we squeak out another half-inch in the next eight weeks, I think we’ll have something.” Even though everything says you should not be hopeful, they’re willing against all odds to retain some form of hope because of their love of the place and the work.
In the spring, we assumed there would be an end in sight to the pandemic, but we were all just getting groovy with the new reality. Now there feels like a literal finish line, but we can’t do anything to get there quicker other than what we’ve been doing. You have to say, “I’ve made it this far, and I can probably do it a little while longer.”
Take Risks Seriously Acacia Johnson , photographer
The Arctic can be misunderstood as inhospitable — living in a winter with three months of darkness is something people think of as tough. But it’s my favorite time of year. There’s not much to do outside, but people make it cozy and have a really good time indoors.
I’ve been able to travel in polar regions by working as an expedition guide, taking tourists to very remote places. These trips are different from a typical vacation in that you have no idea what’s going to happen. In an extreme place, you have to think about what the risks of a certain activity are to you or the people you’re responsible for — a bit like the pandemic. On a ship, things like ice, wind, mechanical difficulties, or fog can really challenge your plans. There can be pressure to push through it and provide the experience that people came to have, but you need to know when to say it’s just not worth the risk. There will be another day in the future to do the fun things we’d love to do, safely.
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.