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Cabin Fever Is Very Real, and It’s a Big Concern During the Coronavirus Quarantine

A cabin fever researcher and a former Mars simulation crew commander explain how to best cope with the anxiety of isolation

As I’m writing this, I’ve been in self-quarantine due to the COVID-19 pandemic for approximately three days. I am, of course, worried about getting the virus. Or maybe more so about it being dormant inside of me and passing it to someone else. But as I spend more and more time confined to my 700-square-foot apartment, the more I’ve also started wondering when cabin fever will officially set in — and what it’s capable of doing to my mental health

According to Paul Rosenblatt, a professor emeritus in family social science at the University of Minnesota, the medical terms that are best suited to describe the feeling of cabin fever are claustrophobia (an irrational fear of not being able to escape) and seasonal affective disorder (depression brought on by lack of sunlight during the winter months). In 1983, Rosenblatt and his team of researchers examined the meaning of “cabin fever” by carrying out interviews with 35 Minnesota men and women, ages 17 to 84. “The people we interviewed varied widely,” he says. “Some experienced it [cabin fever] almost instantly. For others, it took days or even weeks to develop. Some people were hit very hard by cabin fever, whereas others said it was a mild thing for them or almost not a thing at all.”

He tells me that the feelings that were most salient amongst the interviewees were dissatisfaction, restlessness, boredom, irritability and feeling the need for a break from being confined. “Other feelings that at least one person reported included frustration, nervousness, tension, impatience, depression, feeling down about not accomplishing anything, sluggishness, moodiness, anger and lonesomeness.”

If all of that sounds a bit too on-the-nose right now as you find yourself trapped within the confines of the same four walls day after day, I’m sorry to report that this is just the beginning. As the coronavirus continues to spread, the simple truth is that most of us will be spending a lot of time stuck in our homes. But not all of us are as vulnerable to the feeling of cabin fever as others. “For example, some people have much more need to get out and be physically active, and if they can’t be, that’s hard for them,” says Rosenblatt. “For people who don’t live alone, susceptibility is affected by how things are going with whom you share a space. If you’re sharing a space with someone who is very restless and irritable, that might make it harder. If one is confined inside with three active, loud and needy children, that might make one much more susceptible to cabin fever, too.”

Which is to say that cabin fever doesn’t care if you’re quarantining alone or with your loved ones. “It can go either way,” says Rosenblatt. “Being with others may be distracting, entertaining, reassuring and give one good conversation, but the people we interviewed talked about needing something like a balance of togetherness, apartness and breaks in the social routine. Too much togetherness was hard for a lot of the people who had experienced it, though it helped to have more space to get away from housemates or more good distractions.” In other words, for the folks living in bigger homes with extra rooms that allow for the privilege of a break in “togetherness,” cabin fever isn’t nearly as salient. 

Based on his study, Rosenblatt tells me that his biggest concern with widespread cabin fever as the government continues to ramp up quarantine measures is the potential for domestic abuse. “In some households, the difficulties of being confined will set off physical or psychological abuse,” he says. “Another big concern is that some people will deal with the situation by getting into serious trouble with alcohol or drugs.”

Making matters worse, according to Rosenblatt, is that the sort of social distancing we’re participating in as a result of the coronavirus could be very long term. “That kind of confinement was rare among our interviewees,” Rosenblatt admits. “But we did talk to a few elderly people who were confined indoors for quite a long time because they were afraid of falling on winter ice. I remember one man saying how delightful it was when spring finally came and he was free to get out and about safely.” But even then, Rosenblatt says that the people he interviewed could still have visitors and had no problem getting deliveries, “so they weren’t in the kind of situation we’re in now.”

To that end, Carmel Johnston, the crew commander of the NASA funded HI-SEAS (Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) mission, knows perhaps better than anyone what it’s like to be isolated from the world for an extended period of time. In 2015, Johnston, along with five other scientists, spent a year in isolation in a geodesic dome on the desolate slopes of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano to simulate life on Mars. She tells me that while her situation kept her and the other scientists busy, the isolation was “incredibly tough because of our lack of connection with the outside world.” “Email isn’t enough to stay emotionally connected to your loved ones,” she tells me. 

So how did Johnston and her crew deal with their bouts of cabin fever? 

Simple: They went on walks. “Most of our EVAs [extravehicular activity] had a research objective for geologic sampling or coordination tasks, but sometimes the objective was to just get outside and walk in a straight line longer than 20 feet,” she says. “You aren’t able to feel the world around you in a spacesuit, but you can see the sunshine, use your long-distance vision, stretch your legs and explore.”

Ironically, other things that helped mitigate feelings of cabin fever for Johnston and her crew was playing the board game Pandemic, “and how many times we were able to squelch a pandemic from occurring,” she says. 

For his part, Rosenblatt says that different people he interviewed had different ways of dealing with cabin fever. “One was to communicate electronically with others — not only friends and family, but helplines,” he says. “Some people had hobbies that they could throw themselves into. Some put a lot of energy and time into planning for what they would do once they were free to go out — for example, planning a vacation or garden.”

Still, Rosenblatt says that all of us have to be patient with the process. “You may feel sad and trapped today, but in a few days or weeks, you may have a very different flow to your life and will be finding things that help a lot with making your situation tolerable,” he tells me. “That said, a very different way to deal with cabin fever is to take it one day at a time — or even one hour at a time. Decide what you’re going to do and just do that.”

Though it’s been nearly four years since Johnston has been in isolation, she tells me that she still thinks about cabin fever a lot, since she currently lives in a town of less than 20 people, all of whom she works with, and at the end of the day, “trudges through the snow in darkness to our rooms to make dinner before doing it all over again the next day.” “Social connection is huge and if you get bogged down in the situation, it can start to eat you alive,” says Johnston. “My biggest tricks are: a couple hours of exercise every day (preferably outside); learn at least one new thing every day or a hone a skill you’re building on every day; a creative or crafty hobby; and a good book.”

Despite these best efforts, though, Rosenblatt tells me that based on his interviews, he does fear that some people will struggle to get back to normalcy once the quarantine has been lifted. “One woman we interviewed said that after being confined indoors for a long time it was hard for her to get out in public,” Rosenblatt tells me. “I bet there are plenty of people who will have their struggles when the confinement ends. Part of it is that they will have changed. But also the society we emerge into will probably have changed quite a bit economically and in other ways.”

The unique nature of Johnston’s isolation, however, made it so that once she did return home from isolation, the greatest challenge she faced was going from doing something she believed in and that had become her identity to not having a job. “The part that made things worse was being around people who didn’t understand why we’d changed or that changing was part of growing as an individual,” she says. “I mostly dealt with it by not spending a lot of time around those who weren’t supportive of our situation, and a lot of exercise.” 

But Rosenblatt thinks that won’t necessarily happen, since tens of millions of people are doing the same thing. “For a lot of people, it can feel like they’re helping to keep themselves and the people around them healthy and alive, and we know it’s important to do because so many people are doing it.”

Which is another way of saying, our greatest strength in battling against cabin fever during this time of isolation is our solidarity in (near) solitary confinement.