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Survivor Ethan Zohn on isolation: How to stay socially connected while being physically distant

Survivor Ethan Zohn on isolation: How to stay socially connected while being physically distant

As both a cancer survivor and the winner of Survivor: Africa, Ethan Zohn knows a little bit about how to live in isolation. And he doesn’t just understand how to live in isolation, but also how to thrive as best we can. In his Pelotonia LIVE! conversation with Pelotonia President & CEO Doug Ulman, Ethan dives into what we can do to prioritize our mental and physical health while we live isolated from others around us.

Take a look at some of the excerpts from Ethan’s livestream below and check out the full conversation on YouTube.


Doug Ulman: What are you thinking about these days when you think of social isolation and what the world is dealing with at this moment?

Ethan Zohn: I feel, in a good way, that we’re all going through the same thing together at the same time. I think that’s a positive you can look at around what’s going on in the world right now. We all have to take care of ourselves, socially isolate ourselves, not work. Whatever’s happening to everyone, we’re all doing it at the same time. We can commiserate. We can communicate. We can talk to each other. We can support each other. Build that community.

However, the difference I felt was when I was going through cancer… I had a rare case of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I went through traditional chemo, radiation. I had a stem cell transplant, which failed. Then I had to do it all over again. Part of the recovery for having a stem cell transplant, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is you kind of have to stay in isolation. You’re in the hospital for 30 days, in a bubble. When you’re released from the hospital, they want you to be pretty much isolated for 100 days after the transplant, at least while I was going through it. Post that, you’re still living a socially isolated life. No public places. No subways. No restaurants. I definitely felt the stress of being alone emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially. I definitely developed some techniques on being in isolation, whether from being on Survivor or from going through it myself. My wife helped me a little bit with the whole dealing with anxiety. And so I feel that I’m an expert at surviving. I’m an expert at being in isolation.


Ethan Zohn: For me, when I survived cancer, that’s when the real issues came to a front for me, the anxiety, the fear. I like to call those the “what if” scenarios. I just got on a crazy loop of destructive thoughts and ruminating over all these “what if” scenarios.

What if the cancer comes back? What if I die? What if I never get married? What if I never have kids? All of these things. I just started obsessing about them and I wasn’t living a life. I was just sitting in isolation, obsessing over what may happen, and I feel like some people may be going through a similar situation right now.

With how fragile jobs are and the economy and your kids are home and homeschooling and just, there’s so much stuff going on and you can just get in these thoughts of trying to figure out what’s going to happen. And we developed a little technique that I’d love to share with everyone just because it was very helpful for me.

I would literally take that “what if” scenario… Let’s say, what if I get coronavirus? Let’s go through that. Well what would I do, what would I literally do, if I get coronavirus? I take a piece of paper and I’d write out a plan of every single thing I would do if I got the virus. Okay. All right. Call my mom. I go to the doctor. I take the medicine. I would sit at home. I would isolate from my wife.

I’d write down the plan, and then I’d file it away. And so then the next time I started thinking about this “what if” scenario I’d be like, “Oh. I already figured it out. I wrote it down. It’s in the file.” I take it out, I look at it, and then I can just put it away and I can move on with my day. I got it out of my head.

I got the anxiety out of myself. I wrote it down and figured out the plan, and for me that was just a huge relief. And I would do this like three, four, five times a day with different things. I have a shoe box full of these “what if” scenarios. But for me it helped me really get through these scary situations with cancer.


Ethan Zohn: When I was playing soccer at a decent level, after I went through a training session where I did either yoga or some meditation or sports psychology or visualization techniques, I was a much better athlete.

So I brought that entire technique into my fight with cancer and I just tried to continue the same stuff cause when my body, my mind are working in harmony together, I was a better athlete. Maybe I’d be a better cancer survivor at the same time. So that was my philosophy going into it the second time around.

I figured out how to work out in small spaces. You know, I was communicating with friends. I saw a therapist, I had meditation, vision boards, all that stuff. I did everything possible to help control the environment around me.

It pays to have a positive outlet, don’t get me wrong. But when your entire team of doctors try multiple ways of healing you and they don’t work, you panic, you freak out. That’s just a natural feeling. So for me to be able to communicate with other people and to share my feelings, both good and bad, and then as well as working out and eating well, I think that was a huge help for me going through the second time.

Doug Ulman: It’s that sense of control. Whether it’s your diet, whether it’s your exercise. And I think even right now, I mean, we talk a lot about how we need to be focused on helping other people, and I think there’s a therapeutic nature to that, for sure. And at the same time, you have to take care of yourself.


Ethan Zohn: I know that helping others or sharing the details of my life could help me get a sense and purpose of what was going on in my own self. So I truly believe at this special time with the coronavirus, when everyone’s in isolation, that helping others, whether it’s calling a friend, sending balloons to a hospital, making masks, or whatever you can do to help someone else. Donate to Pelotonia, buy gear, whatever it is.

That, for me, made me feel better. That was one of the techniques that I used to get through these hard moments.

Doug Ulman: Yeah. I think that’s so important. I mean, we talk a lot at Pelotonia about the act of expressing gratitude. You know, when you express gratitude, one, it forces you to think of someone or some entity that you’re, that you’re thanking and you’re grateful for, but there is something very healing and very therapeutic that happens when you’re doing that and you don’t do it for that reason. But I think at times like this, when we are physically isolated, it doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated.


Doug Ulman: When you see the [Survivor] episodes on TV, I mean, is it surreal?

Ethan Zohn: It’s totally surreal because you play the game and I’m playing it through my lens, you know. I only know what I know. And I was trying to make moves and decisions, but they weren’t working. But now I get to see why, you know, cause you get to see what everyone else is saying about you. You don’t have that information when you’re playing the game.

So for me, that was really fun and interesting. There was a moment on the show on episode four where I competed in a challenge. It was the last challenge, which was basically we had to collect 20 logs at the top of a mountain and bring them back to our camp, one by one. And we had until sundown. We started, I think, at 6:00 AM or something.

We got till sundown to get it done. It was pretty rigorous. I ended up not doing so well. I passed out. It was just this real realization that my body just wasn’t as strong as it once was when I was 27 years old playing the game.

But the beautiful part about that moment was there were three other women there, and they actually walked me up the last leg of the challenge to get to the top of the mountain and then brought me back down. And like, no one wants to go up there at all, not even once a day. And they went up there one extra time to take care of me.

So like, even in the middle of this really horrible cut throat game of Survivor where people are stabbing each other in the back and voting each other off, there was that human moment. I mean, bottom line is Survivor is a game of relationships. It’s about people and who we are as humans and compassion and empathy was still there even in the middle of the game.

So that was a beautiful moment for me in the middle of this crazy game of Survivor that’s going on right now.


Ethan Zohn: There was a quote that Abraham Lincoln says, “I do not like that, man. Therefore, I must get to know him better.” And there are times out there where I really didn’t necessarily like the people I was trying to work with, but if I got to know them better, it kind of gives you this bridge to understanding. It gives you the empathy.

It gives you the opportunity to understand where this person came from and why they may be communicating or interacting with you in a certain way. And then you can work together in a better fashion if you kind of understand each other better. And so I tried to use that philosophy going through.

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