9 signs you have cabin fever and how to cope

Claire Chamberlain
Photo credit: PeopleImages - Getty Images

From Netdoctor

With the coronavirus pandemic bringing with it self-isolation and enforced social distancing, you’re certainly not alone if you’re beginning to feel the pressure of being cooped up at home. It’s of vital importance that everyone sticks to these new measures, to help keep everyone in communities safe. But if your mental health is struggling and you’re beginning to feel cabin fever set in, what can you do to cope? And what if isolation is putting your relationship under strain?

We got the expert lowdown on how to recognise and cope with cabin fever, to help you keep your cool during these unprecedented circumstances…

What is cabin fever?

If self-isolation has been leaving you feeling claustrophobic, irritable and restless, you may well be suffering from cabin fever. So called because symptoms can appear during extended periods of time spent in a confined indoor space, it can even bring on bouts of depression if left unchecked. But is it a real psychological condition?

‘Cabin fever isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) and so is not a diagnosable psychological or psychiatric condition,’ reveals Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan. ‘However, it can be viewed as a syndrome.’

Cabin fever symptoms

According to Dr Arroll, cabin fever can be characterised by a set of symptoms. These include:

  • Restlessness
  • Impatience
  • Lethargy
  • Low mood
  • Low motivation
  • Cognitive issues (such as problems concentrating)
  • Sleep issues (including trouble getting to sleep or a desire to nap)
  • Food cravings
  • Inability to handle stress

‘All of the above symptoms are rooted in a sense of isolation from the world, stemming from restricted activities, such as those being imposed at the present time,’ explains Dr Arroll.

Cabin fever coping tips

But, at a time when it’s important that we stay at home to ensure the safety of those around us, what can be done to help alleviate cabin fever? Dr Arroll suggests the following coping mechanisms…

Embrace the uncomfortable sensations

In a situation in which it’s impossible to walk away from your current situation, it’s important to face your emotions and feelings.

‘We often try to escape or ignore uncomfortable feelings, which tends to magnify them,’ says Dr Arroll. ‘Instead, turn the tables on cabin fever and view each sensation through a lens of inquisitiveness – ask yourself what each sensation feels like in your body. Is it in certain areas – the head, chest, or limbs, for example? Can you give it a colour, name or character? By investigating each sensation, you will grow accustomed to it and the negative influence these symptoms have will diminish.’

Photo credit: Getty

Grow your connections

Even though we are physically distanced from others at present, there are still so many ways to nurture a sense of connection, both with others and with the world around you.

‘Connect with others, connect with nature and connect with yourself,’ advises Dr Arroll. ‘Schedule regular video chats with colleagues during working hours, rather than relying solely on email, and pick up the phone instead of just texting your friends and family. Try to get some fresh air in the single exercise session that’s currently permitted, as it’s well evidenced that spending time in nature is a balm to the mind. When out, mindfully observe five sights, four sounds, three smells and two sensations, while bringing your mind back to one present moment. To meaningfully connect with oneself, write a letter each week to yourself and place these in a personal or family mailbox – sometimes these letters can be profound reflections, other times they may simply include daily observations. When the social isolation period is finished, take them out and read each in turn, either alone or with loved ones. This will allow you to use this time in an incredibly positive way, triggering self-development that can potentially enhance your entire future.’

Get creative or pursue a passion

OK, you might feel like curling up on the sofa and binge watching box sets, but resist this urge!

‘We all have activities and hobbies that we’ve wanted to try, but somehow haven’t got around to,’ says Dr Arroll. ‘While most of us do still need to work, the time saved on commuting and travelling can be mindfully filled with creative and enjoyable tasks. If we allow the mind to remain idle for too long, it can quickly find things to ruminate about. YouTube has instruction videos for pretty much everything you can think of and research has shown that art-making helps people to cope with difficult experiences and conditions, as it’s a good way to manage stress, reduce ruminative and intrusive thoughts, and produce a sense of achievement.’

Photo credit: Petar Chernaev - Getty Images

Stick to a schedule

Devising a daily and weekly planner will add structure to your time of self-isolation, which can help to manage feelings associated with cabin fever.

‘While self-isolating, try to keep to a daily and weekly schedule,’ agrees Dr Arroll. ‘You may not want to set your alarm as early as you need to when commuting, but maintaining regular sleep and wake times will help maintain your sleep-wake cycle (circadian rhythm). This is important, as cabin fever seems to overlap with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), wherein the primary mechanism is believed to be a disruption in the production of vital neurochemicals, including melatonin and serotonin, which control our circadian rhythm and mood. Write down your new schedule in a diary or print it out on a big A3 sheet and make this visible to the whole family. The act of writing helps us ground ourselves in daily routine, which can help us feel part of the world once again.’

Cabin fever and relationships

Of course, while those self-isolating alone may well be feeling the effects of cabin fever, the implications for those self-isolating with partners or families are also huge. Many of us are used to our individual space and independence, as we work and socialise separately. Suddenly being forced together on a more permanent basis, without the option to walk out of the house whenever we wish, can put a strain on relationships.

‘No matter how big or small your home is, we’re all going to feel the effects of cabin fever over this period of self-isolation,’ says Dr Earim Chaudry, Medical Director at Manual. ‘For those couples with school-age children, my advice is to create a daily schedule. You could possibly break up the day into hourly chunks: start the day with reading and writing, then some time for maths and then playtime in the garden (if you’re lucky enough to have one). In times of uncertainty, structure and predictability are very important for your children.

‘As for couples, being in isolation for weeks at a time could be challenging. You're literally in each other’s space 24/7. Due to this, it’s important to talk to each other and agree on some ways of living that can ensure your time together is harmonious.’

Dr Chaudry suggests the following ideas to encourage harmony and allow for some much-needed personal space:

  • Have separate work areas, so you don’t interfere with each other’s flow
  • Set up regular routines
  • Communicate clearly, to help avoid disputes
  • Take breaks away from each other, to ensure you each have time alone
  • Respect each other’s routine, needs and boundaries

‘By following these fairly simple rules,’ says Dr Chaudry, ‘we can all get through this!’

Last updated: 26-03-2020

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