Festivals, anniversaries, birthdays and other important family occasions were a time for family members to be together to have fun. The young, the middle-aged and the old intermingled quite happily for a few hours with the youngsters tolerating the oft-repeated stories and advice meted out by elders; the elders indulgently ignoring or gently admonishing the youngsters glued to their phones; young children running amok without any severe consequences. Everyone enjoyed, but everyone also secretly heaved a sigh of relief when it was over, and they could return to their peaceful routines.
Imagine this scenario in today’s times when families are compelled to stay home together because of the lockdown as a result of the threat of the coronavirus pandemic. The few hours have now stretched into unending days, and no one is amused or having fun anymore! Indulgence and good humour have disappeared.
Those who used to go to work or to schools and colleges, those who stayed home to look after the house, those who are retired with set routines of morning and evening walks with friends or card games at the club are all housebound – sometimes together and sometimes separately.
Feeling Confined, Bored, Irritable & Worse? This Feeling Has a Name
The working men and women are desperately trying to find a quiet corner to complete their work or have a Zoom meeting with colleagues; the home-makers are trying to cope with the overload of house work that has increased manifold in the absence of household help and everyone at home; the youngsters unable to hang out with friends or party are trying to find different ways to entertain themselves; the older people are trying not to feel isolated in the absence of their regular social interactions; young children are trying to play indoors unable to expend their energy outdoors. It’s like a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode.
Everyone is feeling confined, bored, irritable – and this feeling is called ‘Cabin Fever’.
Cabin Fever refers to the distressing claustrophobic irritability or restlessness experienced when a person, or group, is stuck at an isolated location or in confined quarters for an extended period of time.
Is ‘Cabin Fever’ Real?
The origin of the term is a bit unclear, but it probably dates back to the early 1900s in North America, when it may have referred to someone who was isolated in a remote area, or cabin, especially during the winter when it was necessary to stay indoors for days at a time. Another explanation traces further back to the early 1800s, when the phrase might have referred to being home-bound with typhus fever.
A person may experience Cabin Fever in a situation such as being isolated within a vacation cottage out in the country, spending long periods underwater in a submarine, or being otherwise isolated from civilisation. Or a person may suffer cabin fever in today’s situation of a lockdown due to the coronavirus.
There’s an American movie called Cabin Fever, made in 2002; a horror comedy in which a group of college graduates rent a cabin in the woods and begin to fall victim to a flesh-eating virus. Pretty uncanny given today’s coronavirus situation!
Some experts believe that Cabin Fever is a sort of syndrome, while others feel that it is linked to disorders like Seasonal Affective Disorder and Claustrophobia.
But according to others, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is not like, or should be mistaken for, Cabin Fever or vice versa. People with SAD can suffer significantly for the fall and winter months (most often), and have many of the same symptoms as classic depression – but Cabin Fever is by and large rooted in intense isolation, which may reach the level of a specific phobia. Cabin Fever is not itself a disease, but the feelings it’s associated with are quite real.
How Do Different People React to Cabin Fever?
Not everyone suffering from Cabin Fever will experience exactly the same symptoms, but it involves a range of negative emotions and distress related to restricted movement such as irritability, boredom, hopelessness, lethargy, food cravings, decreased motivation, frequent napping, change in weight, inability to cope with stress, restlessness and difficulty in concentrating.
During Cabin Fever, a person may experience sleepiness or sleeplessness, have a distrust of anyone they are with, or have an urge to go outside – even in adverse conditions such as we are facing now.
In extreme cases, related symptoms can lead the sufferer to make irrational decisions that could potentially threaten their life or the life of the group with whom they are confined. Some examples would be leaving the safety of the house even at the cost of getting exposed to coronavirus, and very rarely, suicide or paranoia.
Personality and temperament are important factors in how quickly someone develops these kinds of emotions.
An extroverted person who is gregarious and not used to being at home, may be more prone. Some people feel it instantly if they feel overwhelmed by a future where they might be home for a long time.
Then there are people who see the lockdown as a way to finally clean their home, sort out bills, organise their closet or pursue a new hobby, and they may take longer to reach Cabin Fever – or not get it at all.
Under the circumstances, all people may at some point or other get symptoms of Cabin Fever; the degrees and intensity may differ, and so does their ability to cope with it.
Here’s How You Can Beat the Corona Blues
Those experiencing some or more these symptoms of Cabin Fever as a result of social distancing or self-quarantine in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, must take active steps to combat the feeling. Although many people do feel better being around family and friends, if loved ones are so grumpy that they believe they are better off staying away from others, and they distance themselves from everyone at home by being cantankerous and angry, it is a time be alert to their symptoms and emotional needs.
Here are some ways in which one can deal with Cabin Fever:
- Regular Eating Pattern: It is imperative not to skip meals or eat too many meals or snack all the time. Meals should be eaten at regular times and intervals. This is not a party, where you order in pizzas and ice-creams to make yourself feel better. It is important to eat balanced meals that are healthy and nutritious.
- Set Goals: It also helps to set daily and weekly goals and track your progress toward completion. Of course, the goals should be reasonable such as reading a book, cleaning your closet, spending more time with your grandmother, etc.
- Use Your Brain: Although TV and social media is a distraction, these are mindless exercises. It is important to keep your mind sharpened by doing crossword puzzles, reading books or playing board games. Stimulating the mind helps in reducing feelings of isolation and helplessness.
Exercise, Routine & Communication
- Exercise: This one is a no-brainer. Even during times when leaving the house is not possible, it is possible to find a way to stay physically active. Regular physical activity can help burn off the extra calories one may gain from being cooped up indoors – and it can help improve one’s mood by releasing dopamine. Indoor exercise ideas include workout videos, bodyweight workouts, and online workout routines.
- Establish a Routine: Instead of treating this experience like a vacation, get up and do all things normally, at least as many as possible. It helps to get up at the same time, have a bath and get dressed, and not lie around in pyjamas all day.
- Connect: It helps to connect with others over the phone or online, and check in on friends, family and colleagues – especially if they too are experiencing some form of Cabin Fever and could do with the support.
‘Apartness in Togetherness’
Each one needs to find ways to overcome these feelings of isolation. Everyone is different and may deal with Cabin Fever differently from those with whom they are stuck. Families and couples need a certain balance of togetherness and apartness, and being stuck indoors together is a risk because really high levels of togetherness can be hard for a lot of couples and families, even though they love each other. There are ways like moving to a different space if one can’t tolerate one’s partner watching television while reading a book, or even taking up individual hobbies to focus on. A breather from one another is always needed.
Addressing feelings of Cabin Fever ultimately depends on understanding what’s going on, and it involves a process of coming to terms with the situation.
What makes it more challenging is that at this point nobody knows how long this situation is going to last, and there’s no definite deadline. There’s a learning curve to dealing with social isolation, and it is something that must be dealt with – because what’s out there is more deadly than Cabin Fever.
(Atima Mankotia, an alumnus of St Stephen’s College and XLRI Jamshedpur, worked in print, publishing and electronic media for over twenty-five years. Currently she is teaching Human Resource Management, Organisational Behaviour and Communication at IILM, and is pursuing a PhD in ‘Gender-based Employment Inequity’. She has written two novels – ‘Staring at the Square Moon’ (2017), and ‘Better Than Sex’ (2020). She tweets @atimamankotia. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)