The winter months stretch before us–during a pandemic no less–and let’s be honest. We’re all a little concerned that being stuck at home – alone or with our family – is going to feel less like “home sweet home” and more like “The Shining” or “Groundhog Day”. We have every right to be worried about going a little stir crazy. But, don’t give up hope! I’ve pulled together the following tips to help you counteract cabin fever.
What exactly is cabin fever?
Cabin fever is a distressing, claustrophobic feeling. We get irritable, restless and it feels like the walls are closing in. While cabin fever is not an official diagnostic category, it is a human experience. We know it; we research it; it exists. In the most extreme form, cabin fever can lead to a paranoia where you just don’t trust people. Some people can even become suicidal.
During the cold and lonesome winter months, we really need to be on the watch for boredom, low motivation, loneliness, and that skin-crawling feeling of, “I’ve got to get out of this place.” We really need to pay attention to those feelings. There’s a big difference between relaxing on a lazy weekend morning and feeling isolated, alone, bored and with no motivation.
How do we create our happy place? Find your flow.
When psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was studying what we now call ‘positive psychology’, he discovered this idea of flow. It’s that time when we’re so utterly immersed in a task that we’re oblivious to the outside world. We’re so interested in what we’re doing that time seems to either just fly by, or time is so slow because we’re so concentrated. Everything is just clicking, and we’re in our element.
Flow is very much related to pleasure. Csikszentmihalyi would even use the word ecstatic. Writers, painters, hobbyists, athletes, scientists, etc. all talk about this. We’ve all had flow at different times in our lives. Where ‘It’ is (whatever your “it” is) working and I’m flowing. I love that description. I’m just in flow.
When we compare cabin fever with flow, they are two opposite ends of a continuum. We really want to organize our lives so that we start to go in the direction of flow. You can’t live in flow. We have to be realistic. You’re not going to live every day, every moment of that experience. People who enjoy those flow moments can’t recreate them by snapping their fingers and just having it happen. You need to organize your life so that you can go in that direction, because it’s really the best way to fight a Michigan winter when we’re all stuck inside.
What are some things we can do to cope with cabin fever? Here are 8 tips.
1. Create a daily routine.
Human beings are creatures of habit. We love organization. We love routine. Cabin fever weakens our motivation for organization, and a lot of times we just give in to that pull. It’s especially easy to fall out of our normal routine when we’re working from home.
If you find yourself sinking into cabin fever, you really want to organize your day. Get up, make breakfast, exercise, etc., approximately however you want your days to proceed. Repeat it every day as closely as possible.
2. Make sure you’re getting good sleep.
With my clients, I’m always asking, “how much sleep do you get at night?” Most people need around eight hours. I always say you need six to 10 hours of sleep. If you’re getting less than six, you’re not getting enough. And if you’re getting more than 10, you’re getting too much.
If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, review your sleep hygiene. These are your habits around bedtime and encompasses your sleeping environment.
If you think you have sleep apnea, make sure to talk your physician and get a sleep apnea test. If so, a CPAP machine could help you get that eight hours.
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Loud snoring
- Observed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep
- Abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking
- Awakening with a dry mouth or sore throat
- Morning headache
- Difficulty concentrating during the day
- Experiencing mood changes, such as depression or irritability
3. Get outside, get moving and get noticing.
It’s cold outside during a Michigan winter, but we’ve got to get outside. And while we’re out there, we need to get moving and get noticing. Listen to the crunch of the snow below your feet. Feel the cold wind on your cheeks. On those days the sun does come out, feel the warmth on your hands, your face, and let it soak in. Let everything you’re experiencing outside soak into your being.
One of the winter things I love is snow. I grew up in Southern California; we did not have snow. I didn’t even see it snow for the first time until I was 18 years old. There’s something so beautiful about watching the snow fall. I’m always shocked on how quiet the world gets when it starts to snow. And that silence is palpable. You can actually hear how quiet it gets. So, get outside, get moving, but while you’re outside, really zero in on the smallest senses.
4. Find a creative outlet.
This winter, think about taking up a new hobby or practicing a new skill. Maybe put some time into honing a skill you already have or finishing a project that’s languished these past few years. I’ve always wanted to learn how to play the guitar. I’m going to be stuck at home these next few months, so I’m going to pick up a guitar and start playing.
We fall too much into the easy things, the electronic devices, watching TV and movies, being on our computers or our iPads. And this is really a time to say, “What else can I do?” Even practicing TikTok dance moves with your family and just be fun and creative.
5. Reframe your thinking.
One of the things that fuels cabin fever is negative thinking and catastrophizing. We have to challenge these negative thought patterns, or we will get stuck in them.
I counsel my patients to practice positive self-talk such as, “The world is going to keep moving. I’m going to get through this. I will survive.” That type of self-talk can help us, especially when we’re stuck in the doldrums of being inside.
Negative news can fuel negative thinking. If that’s true for you, then you need cut off the fuel supply. Yes, I’m saying you should turn off the news–whether it’s broadcast news, social media, the radio, or even negative friends
6. Embrace the ability to connect to others through technology.
There are many wonderful things in the virtual world … apps, videos and more. This winter is going to be very different. I think we need to celebrate how we can virtually connect with people and use these tools to our advantage. It’s really incredible the things we can do electronically.
For those with less access to virtual tools, don’t forget that important low-tech option – the phone. You can still connect with friends and family even if you don’t have a smartphone or video chatting capabilities.
7. Make time to unplug.
We also need to unplug sometimes. I challenge all my clients to be more conscious of their use of electronic devices. Think about it; when are you not connected to all the electronic devices? Because if we go from our computers, to our tablets, to our phones, to our TVs, back to our computers, and that’s how you spend your day, you will fueling that cabin fever again.
Everyone needs to unplug. If you’re not good at unplugging, build it in daily. Since I’m more of a type A myself, I build unplugged time into my day, week and even my month. I’ve found that I get more done. I tend to have more energy, more focus, and I’m more creative. I just feel more successful, maybe is the right word. I just feel like, “Hey, that went well. I feel like I accomplished more.”
8. Be kind to yourself and others.
Finally, give yourself a lot of grace during this time. We have just got to be kind to ourselves and realize, we are in the midst of a Michigan winter, in the midst of a pandemic. Those two together are just ripe for cabin fever. We need to recognize that, know that, and give ourselves and others grace in the midst of it.
What should we do if our symptoms are not improving and/or getting worse?
As a clinical psychologist, I worry about how cabin fever can cross over into something more serious like anxiety, depression, paranoia, or suicidal thinking. If that’s the case, we should be seeking outside help from your physician or mental health expert. We can also connect with the mental health community virtually…chat lines, support groups, information and resources, and even telehealth to see your physician or a therapist. An important chat line is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800.273.8255.
Dr. Ronald J. De Vries, PhD is a Fully Licensed Psychologist working at the Pine Rest Kalamazoo Clinic. He completed his internship training at the Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center Outpatient Clinic approved by the American Psychological Association. Dr. DeVries earned his Bachelor in Psychology from Calvin College. He earned both his Master in Theology and his Doctoral in Clinical Psychology from Fuller Theological Seminary.
He works with adults and adolescents. His primary areas of expertise include depression (mood disorders), anxiety disorders, relationship issues, grief and loss, forgiveness, shame and guilt, recovery issues related to substance abuse, and adoption/foster families.