The term “Cabin fever” is thought to have been coined in the late 19th century at the height of the Klondike gold rush in north west Canada. Originally, it referred to the state of agitation felt by settlers stranded in log cabins by snow drifts in the remote countryside. To this day, the term still conjures up images of being trapped in a log cabin in snowbound Alaska or the Yukon.
More narrowly, cabin fever can be defined as a range of negative and distressing symptoms that people experience when they’re confined, either to their homes, restricted quarters or isolated locations, for long periods of time. This may be for a variety of reasons, such as being cooped up in a ship’s cabin on a long voyage, stuck in a remote country cottage far from transportation and civilisation or quarantined in an apartment during a pandemic lockdown.
The Symptoms of Cabin Fever
The symptoms of cabin fever are often reported as overwhelming feelings of irritability, restlessness and boredom. But cabin fever sufferers do not all experience similar symptoms. Many report feelings of tiredness, sadness and sometimes hopelessness rather than states of agitation. The condition often triggers sleep problems marked by lethargy and excessive sleepiness or sleepless nights tossing and turning until daybreak for those in a state of agitation.
Being confined with others can heighten irritability where the drumming of fingers, the sound of eating food or sipping drinks by room mates can drive you nuts. Some, shut in with others, might become suspicious of their coinhabitants, and start to distrust them, becoming particularly irked about being observed at close quarters and might even think they’re being spied upon. With time on our hands self doubts and ruminations about past failures and embarrassments can also become more persistent making us more irritable.
Get Up and Go Restlessness
Restlessness, another well reported symptom, expressed in a niggling urge to get up and go, can increase. The problem is you know you can’t get up and go, because your on a sea vessel in the mid Atlantic, trapped in a remote cabin by a snow storm or in a coronavirus lockdown.
Extreme restlessness, however, can lead to reckless urges to get outside even when it’s risky to do so. Some try to walk miles to the nearest town in sub-zero temperatures through flurries of snow. Others refuse to comply with lockdown regulations and social distancing, and find themselves in situations that threaten both themselves and others.
Being stuck inside in winter has its own set of problems. In addition to long periods of confinement that brings boredom and loneliness, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, sometimes known as “winter blues”, can exacerbate the effects of social isolation and boredom associated with cabin fever.
People suffering from SAD during the winter months, when sunlight is limited, can sink into a state of depression. Lack of sunlight is linked to the increased production of the hormone melatonin and reduced levels of serotonin. Melatonin makes you feel sleepy and lethargic and lowered levels are linked to feelings of sadness and depression.
Finally, if you’re struggling with any of these issues and feel social isolation is making a substantial negative impact on your mental health, you should seek professional medical advice.
3 Tips for coping with Cabin Fever and Winter Blues
Below are 3 tips that can help manage cabin fever and lessen its effects.
Move your body
Exercise keeps the body fit and can reduce feelings of restlessness and agitation. It does this by reducing high levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, that are associated with emotional discomfort that comes with confinement. It also increases levels of endorphins, brain chemicals that elevate mood.
People should aim at exercising in their garden or home. If you don’t have any exercise equipment you can build an exercise regime round simple effective exercises such as pushups, planks and lunges. Bicep curls and basic resistance training can be carried out using household items, such as water bottles, cans of beans and bags of potatoes.
Avoid Conflict if Lockdowned with Others
While for some people, spending weeks in close contact with their family has strengthened relationships, for others, pandemic lockdowns have created a perfect storm of economic hardship, lack of daily routine and less me-time spent chilling out on one’s own. In this situation, creating and respecting boundaries can reduce tension. If you want to go to another room because you need to rest, have some time out or make a private phone or video call, inform your coinhabitants that you want time alone and ask them to respect your boundaries, by not disturbing you.
If you can’t go to another room, make roommates aware that you require space when reading a book, working on a computer or listening to music or podcasts (with earphones on). Also remember to respect others boundaries, always ask them when to stage joint video calls and if it’s ok to interrupt them when they are spending time alone. In an atmosphere of heightened irritability, being kind to each other can go along way in deflating a tense situation.
If your family or roommate’s habits irritated you before lockdown, it’s now likely they will be doubly irritating now. However, in the depths of a lockdown, now is the time to appreciate your family or tolerate your roommates rather than criticise them. Try to focus on positives and show gratitude and helpfulness.
Develop a Routine and Stick with it
Developing and maintaining a routine helps to give a sense of purpose and control in an uncertain and stressful situation. A lack of routine can disrupt sleeping, eating and other activities. To keep a sense of purpose and structure, create a daily routine of home projects, work tasks, mealtimes, exercise time, and even “me time”. This way, you can give meaning to the passing days and hours and achieve short-term goals throughout your daily schedule.