Lessons in lockdown from an Antarctic mission - comment

It was day 30 when the realisation hit me – I hadn’t laughed for 30 days.

Hughes has found that people understand her Antarctic isolation experience far better than she expected. Picture: contributed.

When you’re on your own, laughter doesn’t come easily and I hadn’t seen another soul for the last month. This was not my experience of social isolation during Covid-19 lockdown, but my bid to become the youngest woman in the world to ski solo from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole.

A different time and challenge to what we are facing now, but hopefully there are some useful insights I can share, whether you are working from home or on the front line in lockdown.

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In November 2019, I left Hercules Inlet in Western Antarctica for the Geographical South Pole, 700 miles away. I skied through an eight-day white-out, storm-force winds and temperatures ranging from -15c to -45c. All the while pulling a sled of supplies weighing more than 1.5 times my body weight.

The only way I would get through my expedition was by being kind to myself, Hughes realised. Picture: Mike Wilkinson.

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I undertook this solo, with no team-mates, no guides and no camera crew – fully experiencing social isolation. I reached the Geographic South Pole 58.5 days later, on 10 January, achieving my goal.

After returning, I was lucky to have two great months at home before being thrust into social isolation again. During my time in lockdown, I’ve been attempting to use the lessons I learned during my isolation in Antarctica to help people cope.

Due to current events, the children and businesspeople I’ve been speaking to seem to understand my Antarctic isolation experience far more closely than I would have ever anticipated while skiing to the South Pole.

Psychological weight

The unknown timescale we’re facing is one of the biggest psychological hurdles. We have no real idea of when this will end or when our lives will return to normal. Although this idea is widely accepted, that doesn’t change the psychological weight it places on our shoulders. The unknown can be terrifying and the uncontrollable promotes a deep feeling of helplessness.

While on my solo mission to the South Pole, one of the biggest uncontrollable factors I faced was the weather. On day two of my expedition, a huge weather front moved in, and I experienced eight days of a whiteout with storm-force winds and freezing temperatures. Each day during that time was a battle; I was plagued by the feeling of vulnerability and the dread of how long it could last.

I quickly realised that thinking too far ahead about all of the things that were out of my control was too much for me. I had to simplify it, break it down and work out what I could control in the storm. In our current situation, focusing too far ahead is too much for any of us to contemplate, it brings dread and worry about the things we have zero control over.

Focusing on today, the immediate tasks and things within our control will greatly help us to weather this storm. I spent nearly two months alone in Antarctica, but it took the first couple of weeks and fighting through a horrible storm to work out what my priority had to be.

I soon realised that the only way I would get through my expedition was by being kind to myself. My number one priority became looking after my physical and mental health.

During lockdown, it feels more important than ever to be kind to ourselves. To actively look after our own physical and mental health. Celebrate the successes, no matter how small. Don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t as productive as you may be in the office, it is hard for everyone.

Take advantage of this time to do the things not readily available to you in the office – do a spontaneous lunchtime yoga session or work in your comfy sweat pants because no-one can see you on Zoom!

No matter how tough things get, I always remind myself that the situation is temporary, the sun will come out and the suffering will let up. So I urge you to do the same, know that the current environment we find ourselves in will not last forever, we will prevail by focusing on what we can control and being kind to ourselves.

Mollie Hughes is an adventurer and motivational speaker with Speaker Buzz

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