Spoiler alert: Cabin fever is real.

By Kelsey Mulvey
June 12, 2020
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It’s possible to have too much of a good thing—even spending time in your own home. For many, the first few weeks of staying at home, lockdown, and social distancing were ideal. You had an excuse to cancel all your plans, wear sweatpants all day, and finally binge-watch the best shows on Netflix. But as weeks turned into months, for many of us, hanging out at home has lost its luster. Now you feel irritable, restless, and in a bad mood. Chances are, you’re not the only one who is feeling a little bummed out.

Cabin fever isn’t an urban legend; it exists and can definitely rear its ugly head when you spend too much time indoors.

“It’s not a mental illness or disorder, but more of a psychological condition that arises from the feelings of being alone and stuck in a confined space,” says Dr. P. Priyanka, MD, medical director for Community Psychiatry. “Once we start to feel stuck, our mind extrapolates it into several other negative emotions to make us feel that there is no way out of this and that things will only get worse.”

So, what’s the deal? What does cabin fever actually mean? How can we manage these feelings once and for all? Read on for everything you need to know about cabin fever.

We hate to be the bearer of bad news, but nobody is immune to cabin fever. (Especially when you spend a lot of time indoors.)

“Probably the biggest misconception about cabin fever is that people may think it is a psychiatric disorder and they would benefit from medication,” Dr. Priyanka says. “Anyone can develop cabin fever given these unprecedented circumstances.”

That said, some people are slightly more susceptible to a bout of cabin fever. Dr. Priyanka says anyone who lives alone, has a stressful job, or has a history of mental health conditions may be more likely to feel the harsh effects of cabin fever. Another vulnerable group? Social butterflies.

“Generally, extroverts are more likely to feel cabin fever as they rely on social connection and external sources for intellectual stimulation,” she says.

If you want to revive your social calendar, schedule regular check-ins with friends and family members. Not only does this offer an easy way to stay social, but it’ll also give you a much-needed break from Netflix.

Cabin fever isn’t recognized as an official psychological condition, so it technically doesn’t have a set list of causes and treatments. However, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge how missing out on some much-needed sunshine can affect your overall wellbeing. While you can always take supplements, you usually get your daily dose of vitamin D by spending time outside. Since you’re not spending a lot of time outside, there’s a good chance your vitamin D levels will plummet. Research shows vitamin D deficiency symptoms include fatigue, depression, bone and back pain, and a weakened immune system.

While a vitamin D deficiency isn’t directly linked to cabin fever, it wouldn’t hurt to spend some quality time with Mother Nature.

“With the nice weather, it's great to get outside,” says Adam Gonzalez, PhD, Director of Behavioral Health, Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Health, Renaissance School of Medicine at Stony Brook University. “Go for walks, get exercise, explore nature, and be with other in a socially distant way. Many people are tired of being inside and being isolated.”

As long as you follow your area’s social distancing regulations, go ahead and enjoy the great outdoors while you can.

How do you know if you’re in the throes of cabin fever? According to Dr. Priyanka, a telltale sign is when you become irritable or anxious over small things that wouldn’t have troubled you in the past. Other signs may include fatigue or tiredness, sleeplessness, boredom, restlessness, a wandering mind, and difficulty focusing.

Dr. Priyanka says identifying these symptoms is the first step to keeping your cool.

“Recognize the need of the moment and why you are having to stay at home,” she says. “Accepting the situation for what it is can help us get through it with a little more ease.”

In a time when your home is your office, gym, local coffee shop, and favorite restaurant, it feels virtually impossible to cure cabin fever overnight. However, there are some things you can do to keep those feelings of being cooped up at bay.

Set a schedule

As liberating as it may be to wear sweatpants all day or wait until the last minute to roll out of bed and into your makeshift home office, it’s important to create a routine for your new normal.

“Create some structure to your day that involves taking care of necessary tasks, but also includes some intellectual and physical stimulation,” Dr. Priyanka says. “When you are in a confined space, it actually feels limiting to both your mind and body.”

Whether you sign up for a weekly yoga class or join a book club, filling your schedule with events that bring you joy will make the days go by a lot faster.

Get creative

It’s official: Arts and crafts aren’t just for kids. Turns out, flexing your creative muscle can reduce depression, anxiety or stress.

“Think about creating something new, engaging in painting, coloring, journaling, and creating new meals,” Gonzalez says.

Want to add some creative activities to your schedule, but don’t know where to start? Here are some adult coloring books worth adding to your cart.

Express some gratitude

After spending months cooped up inside, it’s all too easy to adopt a pessimistic attitude. You can’t hang out with your friends, visit your family, or go to your favorite spin class: It’s understandable to feel blue. But, as Dr. Priyanka argues, it’s important to find the silver lining. One way to do so is by starting a gratitude journal and identifying the positives in your life.

“We generally do not have to work to find negatives in our lives, but finding positives is sometimes challenging,” she says. “We almost have to develop a habit of getting our mind away from the negatives and focus on what is positive and fulfilling. When you practice this often enough, it becomes easier over time.”

Focus on the long game

Nothing lasts forever—and, yes, that includes staying cooped up inside. Though it might feel like your bout of cabin fever will never go away, it’s important to take a step back and understand there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“Remember, this is temporary and will pass,” Dr. Priyanka says. “If we use our healthy coping mechanisms, we will come out of this crisis situation even stronger than before.”

A bout of cabin fever isn’t fun, but don’t worry: You got this.

For more information on dealing with mental health—and dealing with anxiety or depression—visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness.