Cabin fever in lockdown? What it is and what you can do about it

If you haven't heard of the term "cabin fever," consider yourself lucky. For those that have, though, don't worry – you're probably one of thousands experiencing this right now, at home, over 5 months into the coronavirus lockdown.

No, cabin fever doesn't mean being sick at home – rather, it means being sick of home. According to psychologist and relationship counselor Lissy Ann Puno, cabin fever is "not a mental diagnosis," but a "psychological experience" – it's that feeling of restlessness you get when you are "isolated and confined for an extended period of time."

Cabin fever, in a nutshell

If it's starting to feel like a case of claustrophobia (the fear of closed spaces), then yes – that's cabin fever.

The term "cabin fever" borrows itself from back in the day, when people would have to camp out in cabins during harsh winters, forbidden to leave their homes for months just to survive. Sound familiar? That's basically us right now (sans the snow).

Although the feeling of cabin fever might differ per person, generally, it bears a negative connotation – one that must be addressed, especially if it begins to affect your daily life.

Needing space from the same people under the same roof is normal, but when restlessness and agitation plague you almost the whole day – mixed in with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness – then cabin fever becomes a bigger problem.

Other symptoms to consider: If your moods quickly swing from one end to the other, if you've become more irritable and impatient than before, if your energy level is always at a low, and if your motivation is at 0.

The struggle is real

"Cabin fever feels similar to the lockdown, as we feel 'stuck' in our homes without the usual connection that we engage in. We feel more isolated as the days go by," Lissy Ann told Rappler.

"We are not used to this, and our bodies and minds are reacting to it like it's a stressful situation, although their intention is to keep us safe."

So, why does cabin fever feel like such a challenge – not just with ourselves, but with the people around us?

"This lockdown gives us a lot of time to face how good or bad our relationships are," Lissy Ann said, since we are without the usual distractions of work, school, social events, and other people. Since you're in a confined space with your family or S.O., their every quirk, habit, or trait is even more magnified – for better or for worse.

"With this heightened awareness, we might see our family members as 'failing us' when they do not react the way we want them to," Lissy Ann said.

For example, with the work-from-home situation, you might find yourself expecting more time and availability from your partner. When this does not happen, you might start a confrontation, and demand even more. 

"You can really feel if the relationship is disconnected, empty, distant, unsupportive, indifferent, or even toxic and full of contempt, anger and conflict," Lissy Ann said. This could merely be a reflection of issues already existing pre-lockdown, since the ECQ can be an eye-opener to red flags that were not so visible until now.

Cabin fever and relationships: Why it makes things worse

So, your relationship with a family member, a roomie, or your partner might have soured in lockdown – why could this be so?

"Since it's everyone's first time home for a long period of time, disagreements on home routine, chores, and household management may emerge," Lissy Ann said. Keeping score of who cleans, cooks, or cares for the children might cause a strain in your relationship.

A lack of boundaries might also be a factor. Aside from the infringing on personal space, habits like changing TV channels abruptly, playing music too loud, leaving messes everywhere, eating others' snacks, or interrupting work calls will get on anyone's nerves eventually.

"There could also be a difference of views on the virus and the pandemic about safety," Lissy Ann said. You might be germ-paranoid, but your partner not might not have any health anxiety. Your mother might want to take a stroll around the mall, while you think everyone at home should just stay put.

"There could also be financial uncertainty and job insecurity – who will we be let go at work, if there are enough savings, how to pay for rent or the school fees for the children," Lissy Ann said. Money troubles add a lot of stress to a family or couple – stress that no one may be mentally fit to handle at the moment.

Lastly – grief, loss, and disappointment. The illness or death of a family member, canceled graduations, weddings, funerals, or birthdays – these unfortunate events and missed milestones can take an emotional toll on anyone, and we all know that sadness isn't an easy emotion to just bid goodbye.

What cabin fever can do to you

It's a common phenomenon, yes, but if cabin fever is left unaddressed, your mental health could be at stake.

"Cabin fever can exacerbate already present conditions, like anxiety and depression, as well as personality issues that were not there before but have only come out now," Lissy Ann said. ("I was never like this before. Why am I doing this now? Why am I behaving out of character?")

Being on edge around your housemates by anticipating irritability and violent reactions can also bring about emotional exhaustion – that overall feeling of stress and uncertainty, like you're walking on eggshells.

Mental fatigue can also follow. Concentrating and focusing on a task might be extra difficult, as you are unable to stay motivated. You might start questioning your work's relevance or purpose, or take longer to make decisions – and even doubt them afterwards. Your mind just feels like watery soup – no longer quick nor sharp.

Coping on your own

"During the lockdown, the key is safety and survival. Try to do whatever you can to stay calm, and to find healthy ways to resolve conflict by agreeing to communicate about it or to seek professional help online," Lissy Ann advised (various support services are available online for free).

One way to personally stay sane though, according to Lissy Ann, is to maintain a daily routine of activities at home. Set specific times for morning breakfast, for work, for exercise, and for me-time. (READ: Work-from-home burnout? 4 ways to cope in lockdown)

"Tasks as simple as getting ready for the work day or grooming yourself before a video call can make a a difference."

According to Lissy Ann, a good daily routine must let you do 3 things:

Achieve. This is anything learned or accomplished in a day – be it at work, for your business, learning a cooking skill, doing crafts, decluttering, taking online classes, or decorating your home.

Connect. Ideally, you must have one person to connect with positively every day, be it at home, through technology, or social media.

Enjoy. Make sure you do at least one thing you enjoy every day – binge that Netflix show, run a long bath, read a book, paint your nails – it's up to you.

Eating well-balanced, nutritious meals, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, breathing fresh air, and stimulating your 5 senses via mindfulness are also key in maintaining your mental health.

What to do about toxic people

But what if your triggers are the people you live with?

Lissy Ann suggests to try to learn where their stress is also coming from, and to ask yourself if it's a good time to resolve issues from the past – and then to offer support.

"Try to offer understanding, and if possible, communicate in effective ways.  If the other person is willing, agree that to make the most of this lockdown: what will we do differently?"

Ideally, the agreement will be to stop certain "unhealthy habits." Next is to come up with a game plan on how to better co-exist together in lockdown – a discussion that will ultimately benefit everyone in the long run.

What happens if they don't change?

And if they'd rather agree to disagree? Then there's a problem.

Moving out would be a solution, albeit a hard one at the moment in lockdown. Instead, you can practice being more self-assertive by being firmer on maintaining healthy boundaries.

"When you are working from home, communicate this clearly to your family members," Lissy Ann said. Keep a small "home office" corner to yourself, or lock your door during work hours.

Be specific with your demands – if you're finishing a deadline, you cannot be guilt-tripped into completing a chore for your mom. You could also establish family time after work – be firm that anything before 6 pm is work, and anything after 10pm is for yourself. If a family member begins snapping at you for no reason, excuse yourself from the situation.

Also, don't forget to take breaks and take care of yourself.

"Keep a positive self-image that you can cope with the situation. You can solve problems. Stay calm and control what you can and accept what you cannot. Be your own emotional coach and balance your emotions at all times," Lissy Ann said.

As hopeless as it may all seem at times, it is important to remind yourself that this too shall pass, and that nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent. Focus on building zen, and try not to let anyone ruffle your feathers (it takes practice, but it's possible) – and sooner or later, you'll be breaking that (cabin) fever in no time. – Rappler.com

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Steph Arnaldo

If she’s not writing about food, she’s probably thinking about it. From advertising copywriter to freelance feature writer, Steph Arnaldo finally turned her part-time passion into a full-time career. She’s written about food, lifestyle, and wellness for Rappler since 2018.

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