How to avoid cabin fever while in self-isolation

How to avoid cabin fever while in self-isolation

As coronavirus continues to affect our lives, millions of people have been confined to their homes in an effort to slow the spread of the disease.

While there are those rare people that seem to be thriving in isolation – enjoying the extra time to indulge in passion projects, hobbies and unwatched box sets – many others finding being stuck indoors for long periods of time more difficult.

Humans are social beings after all; we’ve evolved to operate in collaborative communities.

So getting ‘cabin fever’ – the claustrophobic restlessness you can experience when confined to a small space for a long period of time – is totally understandable.

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We spoke to psychologist Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan (healthspan.co.uk) to find out more about the phenomenon and what we can do to help ourselves adapt to life indoors…

Is cabin fever a real psychological condition?

“Cabin fever isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM 5), so it isn’t technically a diagnosable psychological or psychiatric condition,” says Arroll.

“However, it can be viewed as a syndrome (a set of symptoms), characterised by a restlessness and impatience, lethargy, low mood and motivation, cognitive issues such as problems with concentration, sleep issues including problems with sleep initiation and maintenance.”

Arroll says daytime sleepiness and desire to nap can be symptomatic of cabin fever, as well as food cravings, changes in weight and difficulties in coping with stress. “This is all rooted in a sense of isolation from the world,” she adds, “stemming from restricted activities, like those being imposed during the current government lockdown.”

Why are some people able to cope more easily than others?

“Many things affect our ability to cope emotionally and psychologically, including trauma, whether early or later in life, a predisposition for mental health issues, personality characteristics such as perfectionism and cognitive patterns such as catastrophising, which drain mental strength,” explains Arroll.

She adds that “having experienced events which make you feel that life is outside of your control, such as losing a loved one, bullying, abuse and unemployment,” can also play a role in resilience.

Some people also find social distancing more difficult than others if they’re isolating on their own. Living with friends, a partner or family members can help you continue to feel connected to others, while social gatherings remain prohibited. 

What coping mechanisms are helpful for someone struggling with cabin fever?

1. Embrace the uncomfortable sensation

“We often try to escape or ignore uncomfortable feelings, which tend to magnify them,” says 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, 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 can diminish.”

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2. Connect, connect, connect

“Connect with others, connect with nature and connect with yourself. 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 you’re out, mindfully observe five sights, four sounds, three smells and two sensations, whilst bringing your mind back to one present moment.”

3. Try to keep to a daily and weekly schedule

“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.

“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, like 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, then make this visible to the whole family. The act of writing helps ground ourselves in daily routine, which can help us to feel part of the world once again.”


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