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Cabin Fever in times of the Coronavirus (2020)

Manfred Kets de Vries

Cabin Fever in times of the Coronavirus

Karl Jaspers, the German psychiatrist and philosopher, once wrote that “humans become aware of themselves in boundary situations.” The spatial and temporal restrictions placed on us by the Coronavirus pandemic will have an enormous effect on our psyche. Many are no doubt experiencing the “cabin fever syndrome” under forced confinement.

 

Are you suffering from Cabin Fever?


Generally speaking, the “cabin fever syndrome” can be described as a claustrophobic irritability or restlessness which we may experience when stuck in confined indoor spaces for long periods of time. Of course, the informal name of cabin fever may have originated in the olden days in North America when settlers would be confined to their log cabins during the long winters.

 

Although it is not an official syndrome, the social distancing and isolation designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus can pose a serious threat to our general wellbeing [1]. Taking an evolutionary point of view, all of us are foremost social animals. From paleolithic times onwards, we require regular contact and cooperation with others for the purpose of survival. Isolation can negatively affect our mind and body, as many astronauts and polar station explorers can testify [2]. Social isolation contributes to a sense of loneliness, a fear of others, negatively impacting our self-esteem, and creates problems in everyday living.

 

Typically, the symptoms of the “cabin fever syndrome” involve a range of distress signals such as restlessness, irritability, impatience, feelings of lethargy, difficulties concentrating, low motivation, food cravings, and sleep disorders. In particular, the sense of helplessness and hopelessness correlates with a high risk for depression and other mental health conditions, possibly even suicide. In some instances, isolation, exacerbated by anger and frustration, can also contribute to greater alcohol and drug consumption as well as domestic violence. Add financial concerns and uncertainty about our future to this volatile mix, and well-being takes a toll.

 

Ways of coping

 

You’re certainly not alone if you’re beginning to feel the pressures of being cooped up at home. If you feel the anguish of “cabin fever” settling in, what can you do to cope? Here are a list of suggestions:

 

  • Maintain social contact. Maintain, develop and grow your connections despite forced isolation. Now more than ever, activate your social network. Even though you may be physically distanced from others at present, there are still many virtual ways to nurture a sense of connection. Pick up the phone, get on Skype, Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, or connect with people through Facebook, Instagram or twitter. Also, maintain your connections at work through regular and informal video chats with colleagues during working hours.
     
  • Avoid conflict. In some instances, you may be self-isolating with a small group of people, whether family or friends. Although this kind of situation can prevent loneliness, it can also carry other challenges, namely the possibility of conflict. It is important to find the proper balance between togetherness and separateness, spending time together and taking some “alone time”. While engaging in this balancing act, respect each other’s routine, needs and boundaries.
     
  • Spend time outside. When possible, make each day an effort to leave the place you are living in. Being outside in natural light is good for you and helps regulate your body’s biorhythm.
     
  • Exercise. While outside, exercise. It is one of the most powerful anti-depressants. Exercise helps release endorphins, making you feel better. Furthermore, regular physical activity can help burn off any extra energy you have from being cooped up indoors. And if that’s not possible, try to do so inside.
     
  • Structure your day. Maintain a set schedule for mealtimes and a set bedtime. Routines can have a great comforting value. Planning out activities and setting goals can also help to keep you motivated.
     
  • Maintain normal eating patterns. As far as your eating habits are concerned, do not “regress” in either overindulging in junk food or forgetting to eat at all. Monitor your eating habits to ensure that you maintain the proper balance of nutrition to increase your energy levels and motivation.
     
  • Be creative. If you have a talent for music, art and writing, you can use this time to try out these activities. Doing so can have a strong stress reducing effect. Also, take this opportunity of having time available to find new books to read. Reading can be a great mind-enhancing activity. Stimulating your mind can help keep you moving forward and reduce feelings of isolation and helplessness.
     
  • Engage in altruism. Do something that’s helpful for others. Engage in activities that spread joy and give you something meaningful to do with your time. Altruism is good for you, and has a mind uplifting effect.
     
  • Practice gratitude. Express your appreciation to people for things they have done to you. It makes them feel better—and makes you feel better.
     
  • Start a diary. Journaling allows you to express overwhelming emotions and observe your thought patterns, rather than simply reacting to them. It helps you to prioritize problems, fears, and concerns. Furthermore, it gives you an opportunity for positive self-talk and identifying negative thoughts and behaviors.
     
  • Use this time for self-reflection. Use social isolation as an opportunity to learn more about yourself—to engage in an inner journey. To obtain greater self-insight, try to have meaningful conversations with others, in particular family members and friends. Also, practice meditation and mindfulness. These activities are great ways to focus your energy inward to increase calmness, concentration, and emotional balance. 
     
  • Visualize future activities. Forced social distancing is a great opportunity to do some preparatory work on your bucket list—to make some plans, both for trips and other pleasurable activities in the future.


If these activities don’t give you sufficient peace of mind—if the “cabin fever syndrome” continues to severely impact your mental health, it is advisable to seek professional help—even if it is only virtually, under the current circumstance. Mental resilience is critical to navigate these difficult times.

While it may seem difficult to find mental serenity in the middle of this perfect storm, it is imperative that we find the strength to do so. Our challenge will be to mindful of the pressures that we are experiencing and to find ways to work through them.


And remember, as has happened with previous pandemics, this too will pass.


[1] House, James S. (2001). Social Isolation Kills, But How and Why? Psychosomatic Medicine. 63 (2): 273–4.
 

[2] Muller H. K., Lugg D. J., Ursin H., Quinn D. and Donovan K. (1995). Immune responses during an Antarctic summer. Pathology, 27, 186-190.

 

Photo credit: Olivier Guillard on Unsplash 

KDVI Writer's Colony, 2020

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