Feb. 11, 2002 -- If you've been feeling irritable, unmotivated,
and lethargic lately, you may be able to blame it on cabin fever -- and the
bone-chilling days and long, dreary nights of winter that have driven you
When heart specialist John M. Kennedy, M.D., of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, stands at the scrub sink before an operation, he breathes deeply with seven-count exhales, visualizing how he wants the procedure to go. "Athletes use these techniques to perform under pressure, but we can all call on them in our regular lives," Dr. Kennedy says. It starts with knowing what kind of breathing works best for the challenge you're facing. Here's what the latest research shows.
Like Rodney Dangerfield, cabin fever (or the winter blues or
winter malaise) is a condition that doesn't get much respect, or much formal
attention, from some healthcare professionals.
But winter depression and its symptoms -- inactivity,
crankiness, sleep loss, and simply feeling down in the dumps -- is real to
millions of people and could be more intense in 2002 because of anxieties over
world events that range from terrorist attacks to a shaky economy.
"In the general population, there are expected seasonal
changes in physiological functioning," says Michael Young, PhD, associate
professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "In some
people, these changes are fairly small and hardly noticeable. But they can be
more severe, often in individuals more vulnerable to stress. You'd expect them
to have a harder time dealing with the stresses of the economy and world
The events in New York City and Washington last September were
not only about destroying buildings and killing people, says David Bresler,
PhD, a UCLA psychologist with a private practice in Century City, Calif.
"It was a psychic attack. Terrorism is designed to terrify people. And it's
been very effective. The whole nation has been traumatized by those televised
Driven Indoors by Fear
Current events and the grieving they cause have led many
Americans to retreat to the perceived safety of their homes.
Paul Rosenblatt, PhD, a professor in the family social science
department at the University of Minnesota, has studied cabin fever. Although
many people do feel better being around family and friends, he says, "other
individuals are so grumpy that they believe they're better off staying away
from others, and they almost put out flares around themselves that say, 'Keep
away! This is a danger zone!'"
"Grief is an emotional wound," Bresler explains,
"and many people have retreated to their nest to heal. Despite all the
campaigns to get people to travel again, their gut instincts are telling them
that it's safer to stay home." But this approach can lead to isolation and
social withdrawal and make their winter depression even worse.
The uncertainties of the times make it harder to escape
lingering feelings of malaise and inertia, say psychologists. They point to the
cumulative effect of repeatedly hearing words like "anthrax" and
"smallpox" on the evening news, the ominous nature of government-issued
warnings of more possible attacks, and reports of job layoffs that lead people
to wonder, "Am I next?"
Alan Schneider, MD, a psychiatrist at Cedars-Sinai Medical
Center in Los Angeles, says he believes that the constant replaying of the
videotapes of the crumbling World Trade Center towers has been "a
particularly bad idea, despite the fact it is newsworthy. It heightens the
propensity for some people to have posttraumatic stress-like symptoms, such as
irritability, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disorders."
And even mild depression and stress can potentially lead to
physical problems. A study last year by researchers at Hopital E. Herriot in
Lyon, France, found that workers who have stressful and demanding jobs have
significantly higher diastolic blood pressure levels during working hours than
peers who did not have such high-strain job pressures.