How to Cope With Cabin Fever

All Cooped Up

Medically Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD
4 min read

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 indoors.

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 events."

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 images."

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.

Here are some things you can do to deal effectively with seasonal depression:

Don't overdose on the news. "At least one day a week, have a news-free day," says Bresler. "No television news, no newspaper. Just give yourself a break from it all." Schneider agrees: "As compelling as it is to keep watching CNN's broadcasts about anthrax, for example, there's only so much stimulation you can get before you start to feel overwhelmed," he says.

Use a relaxation technique to unwind. A simple breathing exercise can blow away stress: Try this: Inhale deeply through the nose for about four seconds, then exhale through your mouth for about eight seconds. Repeat three to four times.

Limit your intake of alcohol. You may think that a drink or two will help you sleep, says Schneider, but in fact, alcohol may disrupt sound sleep, making it harder for you to concentrate the next day.

Maintain contact with your friends. Meaningful relationships can provide comfort and ease anxiety. So stop looking at the four walls, and as Rosenblatt says, "find ways to get out of the house and make connections with others. Even if you have mixed feelings about it, just do it."

Exercise regularly. Research at Duke University Medical Center demonstrated that aerobic activity (working out on a treadmill or stationary bicycle for 30 minutes three times a week) can be as effective as antidepressant medications for relieving depression.

See a doctor. If depression interferes with your day-to-day living, discuss your fears and anxieties with a psychotherapist. "People with persistent sleep difficulties may need medications or other appropriate treatments," says Bresler. "When you're sleep deprived, it can have serious consequences on your performance, including an increased risk of automobile accidents."