Dealing with COVID-Related "Cabin Fever"

May 14, 2020

Even though many stores and restaurants are gradually opening, many people are still working from home to avoid the spread of the coronavirus.  Others are confined to their homes by self-quarantining, or by unemployment.

Weeks or months of self-sequestering can lead to what's popularly called "cabin fever," a feeling of being trapped with no escape, and a desperate longing for that escape.  Columbia psychiatrist Peter Loper said one effect is being alone too much with one's thoughts, and with anxiety, a problem which can be exacerbated by a pandemic like COVID-19.  In addition, being at home and exposed to too much news and social media can reinforce that anxiety and uncertainty.

Another result of cabin fever, boredom, can be dangerous, said Loper.  "Substance use could be one of those ways in which people try to deal with that in a very unhealthy way."  And still another unhealthy factor is isolation.  "Even prior to COVID we had become the most isolated society in the history of modern civilization," according to Loper.  "Just look at the data, and loneliness was at epidemic proportions.  So we're very lonely.  Now add in COVID, where everybody's isolated and home and people are even more invested in these virtual habitats.   And it is reinforcing this sense of isolation.  Another risk factor for mental illness and mental health issues, even following the resolution of COVID."

Fellow psychiatrist Dr. Robin Welsh said children also are subject to cabin fever, though they manifest it a bit differently, such as through behaviour issues and sleep problems.  But she named some ways parents can help mitigate anxieties in children.  "Keeping their routines in place.  Regular schedules are key for children, it makes them less anxious," said Welsh.  "Everybody likes to know what to expect and how things are gonna go.  So the consistency and structure are calming to children, especially during times of stress.  So having them get up at the same time time every day, eat their meals at the same time every day, the same routines, the same bedtime every day, really will help." 

Social stimulation also benefits children, said Welsh, who recommended parents use technology such as Skype, FaceTime and Zoom to allow kids to keep up with their friends, and have virtual playdates.  These  also can be used to visit with grandparents who may not be able to be visited physically.  

But too much social media can be a bad thing, said Loper, such as when adults have lost their jobs.  Prolonged time online can produce a sense of hopelessness.  "So if you're consistently scrolling through and seeing all the different messages of gloom and doom, that is certainly going to reinforce your sense of hopelessness.  So removing yourself from that environment and removing yourself from that medium can be so important for you to be able to step back and see perspective."

A good way to deal with cabin fever is to get back to life's fundamentals, said Loper.  One fundamental we all need,  he advised, is movement.  "Get out of the house.  Go for a walk.  Go for a bike ride.  Go for a jog if that's what you're interested in.  Bring the kids.  Get a group of neighbors...keep your six feet apart, even wear your mask if you like.  There's data that supports that...you get out and you get those muscles pumping, and the pumping of those muscles when you're excersizing, walking jogging, biking, they release endorphins that have very specific and very powerful antidepressant effects."

A statement of hope is also good for one's mental health, said the psychiatrists.  Focusing on the notion that "this too shall pass" is very healthy and will likely promote a sense of resilience and much-needed well being in this pandemic.