Is "Cabin Fever" Real? And Do You Have It? Experts Explain
It may not be an official medical diagnosis, but mental health experts say cabin fever is real.
As quarantine mandates continue into another month, people are getting increasingly listless and anxious—often labeling their feelings as "cabin fever." You've probably heard this term in passing at some point in your life, but it's likely you never gave much thought to its validity. And while cabin fever is not an official medical diagnosis, experts assured us it is as real as it is pervasive during this time of the coronavirus pandemic.
"Cabin fever is another way of terming confinement," says Margaret J. King, PhD, noting that it feels unnatural to humans because it goes against our nature to be free. "Anything imposed is a problem, especially for Americans, whose first imperative (rule) is mobility equals freedom; if you aren't mobile and can't choose your location—even if it's your own home—you aren't free. This goes directly against our cultural grain," she says.
Symptoms of cabin fever include claustrophobia, irritability, nervous energy, and the overwhelming feeling of being trapped. Additionally all of these symptoms can, in turn, lead to heightened anxiety and feelings of depression. However, the degree to which you experience cabin fever depends on your personality, says Judy Ho, PhD, host of SuperCharged Life.
"People who are used to being on the go all the time, people who are more extroverted or see themselves as more physically active are going to have more problems with it," says Ho. Additionally, people who are diagnosed with a mental illness may be finding this time more difficult than the general population.
"The symptoms of cabin fever are examples of what mental health professionals would call 'psychomotor agitation,' which is the kind of anxious restlessness that leads to behaviors like pacing back and forth or rapid talking," says Elizabeth Brokamp, LPC. Psychomotor agitations, according to Brokamp, can sometimes—though not always—be indicative of more serious psychological disorders. If you are experiencing them currently, however, they are likely due to the lifestyle changes caused by the pandemic.
What can you do to find relief?
In addition to sticking to a schedule, allowing fresh air into your home, and not sitting for extended periods of time, Ho suggests exploring your creativity and carving out some space in your home that's only for you. "It doesn't have to be a whole room; it could just be a corner or a table," she says. "If you create and sit in that space, you're signaling to your family, 'Whether I'm working or taking a break, this is where I need to be for right now, and I would not like to be disturbed.'"
Though keeping a schedule is important and provides a sense of normalcy, Ho also suggests changing things up from time to time. "If you usually exercise first thing in the morning then respond to email, switch it up some times—do the emailing first and then go exercise," she says. In addition, Ho says to avoid relying on your phone and television as your main sources of escape. "Try a bunch of things on for size, learn to be entertained by yourself in your home, and to see your home as a playground," she says.
Another important factor in successfully managing your cabin fever is trying to be as patient as possible with the people around you. "Once you get irritable and have an argument, you might not feel like you have room to step away," Ho says. "But I think ll of the rules of good communication still apply: Ask them for space." When you do so, however, tell the person when you will return, rather than disappearing for an unknown amount of time, she says.
The overarching takeaway is to give yourself—and others—a break. Take into consideration that, to some degree, everyone is feeling trapped and anxious. Ho says to make the best of it, and try to put a positive spin on what you're feeling by telling yourself: "This is safety for me and my community. I am protecting myself and others by doing this."
For more expert advice on dealing with the effects of social distancing, check out 17 Mental Health Tips for Quarantine From Therapists.