Q: What is cabin fever, is it a real psychological syndrome, and how do I cope with it?
Suggestions for dealing with being stuck at home and adapting to a new way of life.
We’ve all been hearing about this idea of “cabin fever” circulating to help us describe how we all may be feeling by being trapped inside for much longer than we are typically comfortable. Although technically cabin fever is not a psychological disorder categorized in the DSM-5, this does not mean it doesn’t exist. Based on my preliminary searches, there has been very little empirical research conducted on the topic, likely due to the lack of wide-scale relevancy, up until recently. My guess is that this will most likely change in the coming years and we will know more from a scientific perspective. However, based on reports from my clients and my own personal experiences, there does seem to be a common phenomenon happening to almost all of us. In this article, I will discuss my perspective on cabin fever, why it may be ocurring, and what you can do to cope.
Symptoms of cabin fever:
Although this is certainly not an exhaustive list, signs you may be experiencing "cabin fever" may include:
1) Feelings of anxiety and/or depression
2) Agitation, frustration, and lower patience
3) Decreased motivation and productivity
4) Restlessness and fidgetiness
5) Sluggishness, lethargy, brain fog
6) Increased or decreased hunger
7) Sleep issues
8) Feeling stuck/trapped
9) Panic similar to Claustrophobia
Why does isolation cause cabin fever symptoms?
One of the most prominent psychological experiences of being quarantined is the feeling of being stuck. I’m sure many of us enjoy time at home, and may even prefer it, if given the choice. But at this time, we have no choice. Especially for those of us raised in a society with many liberties, we have been shaped to find security in choices. What helps us get through periods where we may feel stuck is knowing we can exercise our ability to make decisions to change our circumstances.
Although this is a function of societal conditioning, I would venture to say it’s also innate and primal. For all of us, there is some level of threat to our safety (physical, financial, psychological), which will trigger a fight or flight response. When an issue occurs in our current circumstances, where we can neither fight nor flight, we must stay right where we are, seemingly powerless. The imagery of a caged animal can easily come to mind.
Luckily, as humans, we have developed higher order thinking that allows us to have other beliefs, thoughts, and emotions far beyond our basic need to survive. Feelings of hope, faith, compassion, gratitude, and acceptance are our greatest assets in these types of situations. As many of us know from experience, these sensations may be fleeting and are at odds with our more instinctual drives.
So does being stuck inside make it even more difficult to access these ways of managing our fears and coping with the situation at hand? My guess would be yes. For many, quarantine has stripped us of:
2) Sense of purpose
3) Meaningful connections with others
4) Less time in outside and in nature
This is a very harsh reality that likely means a tremendous amount of personal suffering and struggle. I cannot express enough how these experiences listed above are vital to our mental health. In fact, much of therapy often involves helping those who are struggling reconnect with one or all of these aspects of life.
How do I deal with cabin fever?
I wish I could tell you why this is happening and just how you’ll get through it, even though I know we will. It’s okay if we haven’t made sense of what is happening—the battle isn’t quite over yet. In the meantime, it is essential that we exist in the present, taking each moment as it comes. When the mind starts to wander to the fears, concerns, worries, or uncertainties related to the future, we must do our very best to not follow those thoughts and realign with what is occurring in the present. Although it is possible for you to do this at any time, there are a few strategies to make this type of awareness easier, and all have the secondary benefit of reducing overall tension:
1) Exercise, particularly something that either is physically taxing or mentally stimulating
2) Get outside the house and be in nature
3) Meditate, deep breathing, or grounding exercises
A word of advice: it will feel easier to not do most of these things. With stagnation, the mind becomes even more complacent and less willing to make positive changes. This is why it’s even more important to continue to exercise the muscle of awareness during this extremely difficult time. Keep fighting and be kind to yourself and others.
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