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  • Natalia Cohen

Navigating the COVID-19 waters - Lessons from the Ocean

We’re completely self isolating. It’s been almost 3 months and we haven’t left the confines of this tiny space. For 24 hours a day all four of us have seen nothing but each other and when we are incarcerated inside, it honestly feels like the walls are closing in on us. There’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. We’re onto our last roll of toilet paper and we’re running out of food…

This has nothing to do with the coronavirus, but in a strange way - it does!

Who would have ever thought that rowing across the Pacific Ocean would metaphorically become a useful and similar experience to reflect back upon during an unprecedented viral pandemic?

Both are utterly ridiculous things to experience that throw up ever changing feelings of confusion, frustration, anxiety, amazement, insecurity and uncertainty, but dealing with and embracing both of these challenges, I know, will bring about great learning, growth and gratitude.

Let me quickly introduce myself and explain why the lessons I have learned will so aptly resonate during these crazy and unsettling times of COVID-19.

I spent 9 months rowing across the Pacific. My crew and I completed this challenge in January 2016 setting two world records and gaining an international following. It was a journey of just under 9,000 miles from San Francisco, USA to Cairns, Australia in a 29ft, pink ocean rowing boat called Doris! We rowed unsupported. Four women in a tiny pink boat, completely isolated from the world. With nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. You could say we took social distancing to the extreme!!

So.. that’s 257 days of a 360 degree horizon. Nothing but ocean and sky, blue, monotony, daytime and nighttime. We rowed in pairs in 2 hour shifts. 2 hours on and 2 hours off for 24 hours a day - every day. Nothing but eat, sleep, row and repeat. A journey that we initially expected to take 6 months, but actually ended up taking 3 months longer (or 50% longer) than we ever anticipated and days where we would row as hard as we could and by the end of a 24 hour period, due to adverse currents and winds, we would actually have travelled backwards!!

We spent time in a space no larger than a single bed and we had to learn how best to pass our time, those 2 hour rowing shifts, those 2 hour rest shifts and how to get on with one another in a confined space - without wanting to throw each other off the boat!!


It was hard. It was challenging. It was frustrating. It was scary.

​It put me in uncharted waters and it made me learn many insights into how to best ride the waves and weather the storms. I developed ways to better understand the ebbs and flows, to respect the ocean around me and to see its beauty and most importantly how to begin to understand and control the ocean within.

The expedition was not only a challenge of extreme conditions and perseverance but also a journey within to better understand the strength of the human spirit, the importance of connection, being aligned with your values, developing mental resilience, a positive mindset, and yet still remembering to enjoy the journey.

Although I may have already crossed my literal Pacific, in these challenging times that we are all currently facing, without a doubt, we all now have our own Pacific to cross.

Here are my 5 top tips to help you navigate the unchartered waters and cross your Pacific.

1. Control the controllable

Things don’t always go according to plan. There are often situations in life that we can never foresee, can never predict. This virus is a perfect example of this.

On the ocean, due to an unfortunate restart (more about this in the ‘reframe’ section), and the weather phenomenon ‘El Nino’, our journey took us a LOT longer than we were hoping. We found that we were dealing with mother nature. There were so many things that were completely out of our control and so we had to learn to make the distinction between controlling the controllable and letting the things that were uncontrollable go.

Right now, while things are uncertain, it is the perfect time to focus your attention and energy on things that you can control. Get resilient. Get creative.

Don’t waste your precious time and energy on things that are completely out of your control. It won’t do anyone any good. It can be liberating to know which is which and to learn to let go of the unnecessary feelings of stress, frustration and anxiety that we allow to come with situations that are actually out of our control!

You can work to understand how to have greater control over your own creative response to certain situations. You can take this opportunity to really take advantage of the present external confusion around you to do some personal development. To become a lot more self-aware, self-directed and self-motivated. This is something you can control.

Some examples:

  • Manage your news consumption (once a day?)

  • Journal (an amazing daily tool that you can use to get those thoughts out of your head)

  • Get into nature - even if it's into your garden! (there is great power there and will help heal, inspire & invigorate you)

  • Keep yourself in the moment (don’t let those thoughts run wild on future imaginings)

  • Choose your attitude, your reaction, your mood, your effort

2. Connection

Concentrate on the three types of connection. I call them the HEY connection.

H - Human

E - Environment

Y - Yourself


HUMAN

It’s all about human connection. Treating each other as human beings, with empathy and compassion. Appreciating one another. Looking out for one another. Fear can often drive people into their heads and into their own worlds which could make them feel isolated and helpless. Make sure you keep connected with others. Listen to one another. Be patient. Be understanding. Be open and honest. Be kind.

It's all about effective and honest communication.

  • Have a daily check in with whoever you're quarantining with. How are they doing/feeling?

  • If you're away from loved ones. Have regular virtual check-ins / catch ups. Phone calls, video calls, messages.

  • Make sure you purposefully put aside some time for everyone in your household to get together - socially. Make an effort to do something fun together.

  • We're in this together. Work together. Support one another. Communicate!


Out on the Pacific, as a team, we would have constant check-ins in our rowing pairs. We would have full transparency with one another. Share how we were feeling. Share our hopes and our fears. Share if we were having a good day or a bad day. There was an ongoing dialogue about how we felt, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. We would discuss if we wanted to have a chatty 2-hour shift sharing life stories or playing word games or if we wanted to be more silent - more reflective. We needed to be aware and understanding to how each other felt and we only knew this by having continual open communication. After all, it's better out than in and none of us were mind-readers.

I know how hard it is to be away from loved ones. I did it for 9 months. I only had one 10 minute call once a week to chat to my family, but I made it count. We blogged as well...we blogged every day, in fact, and this really helped us remain connected.


Although we rowed in pairs, it wasn't that often that the 4 of us would get together and I wanted to make sure that this happened. So every week or so I would coordinate a team social. An opportunity to do something fun together. A full moon party, a shared meal under a star filled sky, a dance session... We made an effort to do something fun as a full team.

We were truly isolated and stuck with nothing to do out on that ocean. We needed to find ways to entertain ourselves. Audio books, writing blogs, learning poems, narrating films to one another, playing word games, creating quizzes, making up stories and lyrics to songs. We definitely got creative.

ENVIRONMENT

For us it was that tiny little pink boat and that mighty Pacific Ocean - for you it will be your homes. Connect with wherever the physical space is that you are riding out this storm. Make your environment as comfortable as you can. Create positive energy in and around your space. Make an area of your space your own personal sanctuary - if you can.

YOURSELF

The most important connection is the one you have with yourself. Having an understanding of what is going on in your mind and beginning to control that internal dialogue, are some of the biggest challenges we face. We need to learn how to tame those incessant thoughts that are constantly running.

During these inevitable moments of self-doubt and uncertainty, make sure that you have a number of techniques in place to deploy when the negative self talk starts running wild. These negative beliefs are strong and will always make an effort to overthrow any form of positivity. Don’t give them any power. Observe them, smile knowingly and then let them go.

Whatever you need to do to snap yourself out of the negativity, break that state of mind and bring yourself back to the moment – do it!

  • Play a song/music that always makes you feel energised, confident and happy

  • Develop a mantra that will shift your mindset back to a positive one

  • Do a short meditation (even 10 minutes) or some form of mindfulness

  • Speak to a friend/family member/work colleague that you know always lifts your spirit and makes you feel good

  • Get active! Make time for a workout/run/walk - even a dance around your kitchen!!

  • Look at a photo that brings back very strong and positive memories for you


Who is the captain of your ship?

You or your mind?

You have to be able to lead yourself well before you can support those around you. So make sure you are looking after yourself.

Self-care, at this time in particular, is of huge importance.

3. Celebrate small successes - Gratitude

Gratitude is one of the most over looked tools in helping us improve our mental wellbeing and impacting our overall experience of happiness.

*I think in light of what’s happening right now, it’s extra important to be kind to each other and grateful for every moment. To look for positives despite the uncertainty that is surrounding our worlds.

Please see short video below showcasing how important sharing daily highlights and gratitude was for me us on the ocean and an example of one of the day's tasks from The Happiness Effect Challenge.

To help us to enjoy the journey – we have to appreciate the little things along the way. Every day I will make an effort to celebrate a small success. Find a highlight. Anything to look for the positive in the situation you’re in. It’s amazing what you find when you are actively looking for it. Seeing a new flower bloom, having a wonderful nights sleep, a great workout – where you push extra hard, a particularly tasty meal, a surprise email, an uplifting phone call or simply the sun shining! It doesn’t matter how small – celebrate it!

  • Everyday - look for and share a 'daily highlight' with your household/family/work colleagues

Focus on everything that you are grateful for and write it down or communicate it.

​4. Re-frame

Life is all about perception. Or more importantly; re-framing your perception.

We all know those people that manage to find the negative in every situation. No matter what you tell them, they’ll counterbalance any remarks with an unconstructive response and just refuse to see things in a positive light. Well...I have always done my best to re-frame situations and be an optimist. It's simply a way of looking at the world. Seeing opportunity in the challenges. Extracting lessons and using them to grow. Knowing that you will be wiser and mentally stronger after dealing with every one of those challenges.

The most perfect example of reframing was during our return to shore in the Pacific Row. When flooding led to fire and then the loss of our chargers that linked our batteries to our solar panels, we had to find a way to deal with the devastation of returning to land after only 10 days of being out at sea. So - we re-framed it. We changed the way we looked at the situation and that meant that when we headed out the second time we would be 'experienced ocean rowers'! It meant that when we headed out the second time we would have had the opportunity to refine some of the equipment on the boat. It meant that when we headed out for the second time, we would do so with more knowledge and understanding of what we'd have to face. We saw the opportunity in the difficulty and the challenge and didn't dwell on the negative or the perceived failure.​

So...as we all deal with the uncertainty and changes that are being thrust upon us daily by COVID-19, let's be optimists. Let's make the choice to:

  • Look for the positives

  • Be open to opportunity

  • Learn from our challenges - use the wisdom we gain to create energy to go again

  • Reframe our negative/unhelpful thinking

5. Find routine and take it stroke by stroke

I sometimes didn't know how I was going to make it through those 257 days. Every time we had a stopover would I actually want to get back on that boat? What would help keep me motivated and driving forward (even if we went backwards!)?

For those that are now having to work from home and create a whole new way of working, you will need to create a new routine that works for you.

Make sure that you structure your day well. You allow time for breaks, for lunch, for getting away from the desk/laptop and there is always time in you day for connection, mindfulness and play!

It may not be your usual routine that you have in the office, you may want to adapt and change it. Do whatever you need to do to make yourself as productive as you can and happy as you can.

On the Pacific, we had 2 hour shifts. This is what we decided worked best for us. Six shifts were rowing shifts and 6 shifts were rest shifts. We knew what needed to get done in a 24 hour day and so we just made sure that during those rest shifts, things got done. We delegated tasks amongst the four of us, we used each others strengths and we set ourselves very specific goals. That routine become my anchor. Those 2 hour shifts helped me deal with things when they started feeling overwhelming. I wouldn't think about the next 24 hours or the next week or month, I would concentrate simply on the next 2 hours. I broke everything down into these manageable sized chunks. These 2 hour shifts.

You just have to persevere through challenges. Take them step by step, or in our case, we took everything stroke by stroke. Stroke by stroke, 2 hour shift by 2 hour shift, day by day.

So to deal with overwhelm and stress, make sure to:

  • Find a routine that works well for you

  • Know and play to your strengths

  • Break things down into manageable sized chunks

  • Take it stroke by stroke, but keep persevering

  • Don't forget to enjoy the journey

If you think the above tips and insights are helpful to you or your team and you want to find out more, please connect. I'd love to hear from you. I'm available for:

Online Keynote talks

Q&A sessions

Mindset Coaching

The Happiness Effect Challenge

*The Happiness Effect is a 21 day program designed to help you be more present and consciously attract happiness into your life.

Our documentary of the expedition is called Losing Sight of Shore and is currently available on Netflix (until May 1st), Amazon and iTunes.

Please share this blog if you think it will be of help to anyone you know and please connect for any reason at all!

Stay healthy and stay safe.

Natalia x

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#Tipsforcorona #COVID19 #lessonsfromtheocean #inspiration

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Contact: natalia@nataliacohen.co.uk