“Extreme irritability and restlessness from living in isolation or a confined indoor area for a prolonged time”, says Webster. If this definition strikes a familiar feeling, you may have fallen under the spell of “cabin fever”. Although not a true medical disease, it is a common aberration of human nature resulting from prolonged boredom and lack of social stimulation.
Prior to COVID-19, this scenario may have been a subplot in a Jack London short story. For those living in Flagstaff, it could have come from experiencing a longer than expected, snowed-in weekend in northern Arizona. But with the current COVD-19 pandemic, many of us have participated in self quarantine and social isolation as doing our part to address this disease. As we all deal with our day-to-day anxieties in our own way, once we add the additional stressors of this rampant disease and subsequent societal compromises, our coping mechanisms may begin to break down.
Not everyone will experience the same symptoms from this syndrome. Commonly, complaints of intense irritability or restlessness are reported. Physical symptoms of lethargy, fatigue and frequent napping with difficult awakening are not uncommon. Psychological issues include depression and sadness, difficulty with thinking, and feelings of hopelessness. Sometimes the stress is reflected in anger and lack of patience with those in close household proximity, such as spouse and children, and in multi-generational households, even parents or other relatives. Initially innocuous for most, cabin fever left unbridled may evolve to extreme emotional and psychological imbalance that may require professional help.
As we continue to navigate the changing waters of the COVID-19 social recommendations by our national medical experts as well as the guidelines or requirements by our governments, we once again may be held to voluntary or mandatory health and socioeconomic restrictions. Taking active steps to counter our adverse feelings early on may go a long way for each of us to maintain better emotional control.
If you shelter at home or need to self-quarantine, getting out of the house for even a short time while maintaining social distancing may be helpful. Exposure to sunlight will help autoregulate your natural endocrine cycles. Exercise will help produce endorphins, your body’s natural stress reliever. Planning for some alternative regular exertion, such as an indoor exercise or following an online program are accessible to most, if not all of us.
Avoid the temptation of junk foods, as well as ongoing snacking and grazing thru the day. Maintaining a regular, well-balanced diet will help preserve energy levels and motivation. Stay away from high fat and high sugar foods. Satisfy adequate hydration by drinking at least 64 oz of water daily. Avoiding caffeine may be beneficial. Regular sleep / wake cycles are also supportive. Avoid ‘all-nighters’ and maintaining a regular wake up time will go a long way to preserve your proper circadian balance.
Mindless TV and binge-watching programs are a relative vacuum of mental effort. Stimulate your brain with puzzles such as crossword or sudoku, playing board games or reading books are much more beneficial activities that will keep your mind in gear. Make some reasonable goal during your time at home. Going thru that closet or listing some easy but long-overdue home fixit chores will lead to a sense of satisfaction with each achievement. Set your daily requirement of at least one hurdle to cross that provides some sense of fulfilment.
Hopefully, we as a society will be able to stabilize and control our health future without significant socioeconomic isolation again. Yet should we head down that path, keep these suggestions in mind as we shelter at home and self-quarantine once more. Please be responsible to all of us: yourself, your family, and your neighbor as we fight for wellness together.
Bradford Croft, DO
East Flagstaff Family Medicine