Isolation: 7 hostage survival tools to keep sane during your (prolonged) corona-quarantine

Written by Michael Sjøberg; Translated by Falke Sjøberg

Lockdowns and quarantines have been everyday life for many of us for weeks now. Some have been extended, some will be and event others might return again come Autumn. And to some, this prolonged change in life reflects in accumulated stress and pressure – how long is this going to last? Many experience slightly elevated levels of stress, caused by the uncertainty of what’s going to happen. Others, maybe especially business owners and their employees, fear for their livelihood.

It’s hard for me not to draw parallels between the dynamics of hostage situations and the situation we currently are in. Having studied and managed numerous kidnap and hostage situations and debriefed a large number of hostage survivors, some of the (albeit far more civilized) dynamics of the current situation seem especially reminiscent to longer hostage situations.

And no, it’s certainly not my intention to over-dramatize – quite the opposite. During the lockdown, we are neither subject to coercion nor violence, as hostages in hostage situations are. But on the other hand, some parallels can still be drawn. Perhaps we can learn from the people who have endured (and survived) endlessly much uncertainty and isolation.

So here’s my take on what we can learn from people who have survived kidnappings and hostage takings, learnings we can use in this somewhat more civilized version of some form of isolation (at home, with Netflix and all that jazz): 

OK, so here they are – 7 essential hostage survival tools you can/should use during the corona-quarantine:

  1. Strive for a normal everyday life
  2. Use meaningful activities
  3. Make active, conscious choices
  4. Be clear in your leadership (with yourself and your family)
  5. Introduce a clear structure
  6. Move
  7. Maintain the hygiene – both the mental and the physical

Striving for a normal everyday life can be difficult when you have to work at home for many weeks. But as a starting point, it is important to make a plan for your workday – and most importantly stick to the plan. Avoid too many side jumps and try as far as possible to make your everyday life look like the “norm”. It’s actually quite simple, but it takes discipline to get it implemented. It has always made a big impression on me when a previously detained person talks about the daily plans they have made for themselves. An important psychological dynamic here is that the daily schedule makes it easier for you to keep the course with yourself – even when you’re pressured by an external stressor (such as when the quarantine is extended – again – by three weeks).

In January 1991 RAF pilot John Peters and navigator John Nichol were shot down in their Tornado fighter bomber over Iraq – and captured by Saddam Hussein’s forces:

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The pilot, John Peters (to the right above) during the captivity (hint: Iraq did not exactly abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention on how to treat prisoners of war) made an improvised calendar out of a pill box:

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Notice how Peters has scratched the top of the cross most of the days. As the evening wore on he evaluated his own fighting power to assess how courageous and moody he was. Once it was going well (despite the horrible conditions in the prison) he scraped the top of the cross – if he was down (energy or moodwise) the would scrape the bottom of the cross. A simple approach, yes, but Peters has repeatedly pointed out that his attention to self-evaluating every night helped him significantly to keep himself up during the days. 

Meaningful activities are what we need to put into our everyday lives. Strive for an everyday life with key elements that make sense (and that you can actually accomplish). It’s about avoiding being  sucked into a state where everything feels meaningless. Take control and ownership of your psychological well-being. By doing meaningful things, we stay healthy and destressed – ready to start a normal life again on the other side of the crisis.

Employing meaningful activities is closely related to tool number 3: Making active conscious choices. Fight apathy. It can be really good for one’s psychological well-being to be able to say to oneself: I did well through this period. I didn’t unnecessarily call our overworked and already stressed Health System or go down and hoard in the local grocery store. There’s a difference between whether you are driven by your instinct or by using the front part of your brain and analyzing the situation and from there making sensible choices. Making conscious choices makes this whole situation easier to deal with along the way. Make conscious choices – and avoid acting on sudden emotions.

And then there’s clear leadership. It is of the utmost importance that we lead ourselves in an everyday life where the structure has suddenly become more fluid. Be clear when communicating with yourself – and your family. Otherwise, both apathy and self-inflicted stress can quickly take over – and then suddenly the circumstances (or maybe your kids) are running the show. It’s a shame when it’s you who’s in charge.

The need for structure is about reflecting a normal everyday life as well as possible. Separate weekdays and weekends. Create a structure in the family, let a new rhythm come into play. During numerous debriefs of hostage survivors, it has often struck me how creating structure is one of the most important keys maintaining a normal state of mind. Structure creates predictability, which is something everyone needs at a time when may things are unpredictable. With a clear (and simple) structure you can lead yourself and your family to predictability, meaningfulness, and more peace in an uncertain time.

When we try to create structure in everyday life, movement is also an essential activity to think about. Movement is important for many reasons. It’s stress-reducing, it can improve your sleep and on the whole just rewarding for one’s mind to get out into nature and get some fresh air.

The seventh and final tool is hygiene. In situations like these, where days can feel the same, it is important to maintain your hygiene rituals as you usually do – especially because we instinctively do the opposite, forget to shower, leave the dishes, etc. So take your own hygiene seriously. It strengthens self-respect and provides well-being.

It is also important to look at your mental hygiene. I caught myself (more than one time) in having the news running in the background all-day during the first days of the quarantine. Being confronted with threats and a yellow ‘Breaking News!” bar all-day is stressful – our mammalian brain is not rational and reacts negatively to negative inputs. The news and social media can be okay but limit your usage.