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Cabin Fever

Understanding the Fear of Isolation

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Updated December 30, 2012

Cabin fever is a popular idiomatic term for a relatively common reaction to being isolated in a building for a period of time. Some experts believe that cabin fever is a sort of syndrome, while others feel that it is linked to such disorders as seasonal affective disorder and claustrophobia. Cabin fever is ultimately rooted in intense isolation, which may reach the level of a specific phobia. The condition was dramatized in the 1977 Stephen King novel and 1980 film, The Shining, in which a family is snowbound in an old hotel.

The Shining

In both the novel and the film versions of The Shining, author Jack Torrance takes a position as winter caretaker for an historic hotel, moving his family into the hotel for several months. As time progresses, Jack becomes more and more unhinged, until he finally attempts to kill his wife and child. The hotel seems to be haunted, and one presented scenario is that the hotel's ghosts are slowly possessing Jack. On the other hand, the isolation clearly has a profound impact on him, even in very early scenes, making it equally possible that his increasingly violent and bizarre behavior is due to his own crumbling psyche.

Symptoms of Cabin Fever

Of course, The Shining is fiction. Most people with cabin fever do not become violent or unstable. Domestic violence may become more likely during extended periods of isolation, but only in those who have a history of instability or aggression. However, many of the most common symptoms of cabin fever do mirror some of Jack's less-violent tendencies. Each person is different, and not everyone suffering from cabin fever will experience exactly the same symptoms. Nonetheless, below are the most commonly mentioned effects.

  • Restlessness
  • Lethargy
  • Sadness or Depression
  • Trouble Concentrating
  • Lack of Patience
  • Irritability
  • Food Cravings
  • Decreased Motivation
  • Social Isolation
  • Difficulty Waking
  • Frequent Napping
  • Hopelessness
  • Changes in Weight
  • Inability to Cope with Stress

Note that these symptoms may also be indicative of a wide range of other disorders, and only a trained mental health professional can make an accurate diagnosis.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, is commonly linked to cabin fever. However, the two disorders are not interchangeable. The key difference is that cabin fever is specifically associated with isolation, while SAD occurs during the winter months even in people who spend little time at home. The two conditions may occur simultaneously, and deciding precisely which factors are at work can be challenging.

Coping With Cabin Fever

Like any mental health condition, cabin fever is best treated with the assistance of a therapist or other trained mental health professional. However, if your symptoms are relatively mild, taking active steps to combat your feelings may be enough to help you feel better.

  • Get Out of the House - If you are snowbound, this may not always be possible. But if you are able to go outside, even for a short time, take advantage of that opportunity. Exposure to daylight can help regulate the body's natural cycles, and exercise releases endorphins, creating a natural high. Even a quick stroll can help you feel better quickly. If you are not able to leave the house at all, get close to a window and start moving around.

  • Maintain Normal Eating Patterns - For many of us, a day stuck at home is an excuse to overindulge in junk food. Others skip meals altogether. However, eating right can increase our energy levels and motivation. You may feel less hungry if you are getting less exercise, but monitor your eating habits to ensure that you maintain the proper balance of nutrition. Limit high-sugar, high-fat snacks and drink plenty of water.

  • Set Goals - When you are stuck in the house, you may be more likely to while away the time doing nothing of importance. Set daily and weekly goals, and track your progress toward completion. Make sure that your goals are reasonable, and reward yourself for meeting each milestone.

  • Use Your Brain - Although TV is a distraction, it is also relatively mindless. Work crossword puzzles, read books, or play board games. Stimulating your mind can help keep you moving forward and reduce feelings of isolation and helplessness.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th Ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Seasonal Affective Disorder. Pubmed Health. February 11, 2012. Retrieved December 30, 2012 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002499/

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