Cabin fever

Technology — being able to call, text, video chat with friends and family or play online games — may make it easier to cope with loneliness. (Photo: Envato Elements)
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the snowy days, force people to spend more time indoors for extended periods of time. For some, being forced to spend all day indoors seems like a dream come true, while others may start to feel that they are going stir-crazy. The latter feeling can be described by the term cabin fever. Although cabin fever is not formally recognized as a psychological illness, varying symptoms ranging in intensity are very much possible.اضافة اعلان

What is cabin fever?

According to Merriam-Webster, cabin fever is defined as extreme irritability and restlessness from living in isolation or a confined indoor area for a prolonged time.

Being cooped up alone indoors may trigger depression, irritability, and restlessness. (Photo: Envato Elements) 

The exact origin of the expression is unknown, but its use has been popular since 1900. Originally, it was used to describe those who were trapped indoors due to snowy conditions. Over time, the expression grew to describe the feeling of being trapped in any situation that brings on irritability and restlessness.

Cabin fever vs. SAD

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a disorder that has been classified as a type of depression, more specifically, the major depressive disorder with seasonal pattern and is estimated to affect 4.0 percent of the world’s population. Some argue that cabin fever and SAD are synonymous, although the common consensus is that they are not. The two conditions share many overlapping symptoms and manifestations, but the key difference between the two is the cause.

The exact cause of SAD is not fully understood, although there is one factor that predominates. The lack of sunlight brought on by winter months in the northern hemisphere causes a disruption to our biological clock. This biological clock is known as the circadian rhythm and is responsible for a host of physiological processes.

When relating to SAD, the chief process affected is the sleep cycle and neurotransmitter dysfunction. Neurotransmitters are biochemical messengers that are used by the nervous system for a variety of purposes. One of the major neurotransmitters that is affected by sunlight is serotonin, which is responsible for mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. Disruption in the sleep cycle and levels of neurotransmitters can negatively impact mental health.

Whereas SAD has an environmental cause that results in physiological changes, cabin fever is more situational. Humans have an inborn need to socialize, which has served as an evolutionary advantage that allowed us to develop civilizations. When the ability to socialize is taken away, it can be extremely distressing. The exact cause for distress is unknown but the results of human isolation can be devastating on physical and mental health.
In cases of social isolation, the risk of death can be increased by as much as 50 percent, while in some cases of human isolation, the risk may even be as high as 90 percent. Additionally, isolation can have an impact on physical health and has been linked to increased blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, increased vulnerability to infection, and overactive immune responses.

In mental health, isolation can result in cognitive decline, depression, and increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In more extreme situations, isolation may cause insanity that can result in psychosis and hallucinations. Fortunately, these manifestations take a long time to manifest and require prolonged isolation.

In cabin fever, the duration of isolation is relatively short, and the effects are reversed after the period of isolation.

Symptoms of cabin fever

Although the duration of isolation is shorter than that needed to result in severe manifestations, emotional and behavioral distress is still likely to occur. Irritability and restlessness are the two most common symptoms and serve as the hallmark of cabin fever. Additionally, people experiencing cabin fever may feel decreased motivation, hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, and persistent sadness or depression. They may also begin to distrust people they are confined with, and have irregular sleeping patterns that include sleepiness, sleeplessness, or difficulty waking up.

Contributing factors

Cabin fever is caused by isolation, but not everyone responds to isolation the same. The variability and severity of cabin fever is dependent on many factors. People who are more outgoing or extroverted tend to have a more difficult time with isolation than those who are more introverted.

There are other compounding factors that may trigger or worsen cabin fever, predominantly caused by stress. In relation to COVID-19, people may experience cabin fever more frequently if they have become burnt out by work, already feel lethargic or unmotivated due to a lack of work, or become increasingly anxious due to finances. Additionally, those with other mental health conditions, including SAD, are more likely to develop cabin fever and have further worsening in their condition.

How to cope with cabin fever

The key to coping with cabin fever is to keep occupied and distract the brain. Despite isolation becoming more common due to COVID, the advances in technology have made it easier to cope. Being able to call, text, or video chat with friends and family helps avoid cabin fever.

Similarly, online games on phones, computers, and consoles can help connect with other people as well as occupy the mind. In general, developing a routine helps people feel in control of their situation and has positive effects on mental health even when not isolating. This routine should incorporate a healthy diet to improve mental and physical wellness, as well as to ensure that there are no changes in eating habits.

Regular exercise should also be incorporated to further boost physical wellness and mood. Other important aspects of a routine should include a healthy balance with work which can help with boredom and prevent burn out, as well as establishing a sleep schedule which will require you to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

Getting outdoor time can also help with cabin fever. Unlike when being trapped inside due to a blizzard, COVID restrictions only prevent traveling and avoiding physical contact with others. Going outside for a small walk or even sitting outside can help.

Exposure to sunlight helps regulate the circadian rhythm and exercise can help release endorphins, with are our body’s natural pain killers and produce a natural high. Overall, spending a small portion of your day outside has been shown to help relieve stress, boost mood, and improve overall well-being.

Finally, focusing on the positives of a situation can also help overcome the overall feeling of dread and help exercise mindfulness by expressing gratitude.
Some find it helpful to write their thoughts, which helps them articulate themselves better or could be a source to draw on when feeling particularly down.

Some positive aspects of isolation include more time spent with family, more time to be creative or inventive, as well as more time to explore a new hobby or finish an old project. Blocking out negative sources can help remain positive. News is a great source for information and it is important to remain informed, but consuming too much negative information regularly may trigger feelings of anxiety or depression.

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