Health & Wellness

Battling cabin fever

Alicia Culmer says she’s never been the one to go out all the time, but just knowing that she’s restricted by law with the country under a 24-hour curfew in an effort to contain COVID-19, has made staying at home difficult for her.

“It feels like I’m in jail with amenities,” said Culmer who has been housebound for 12 days. “It feels like the walls are closing in. There’s only so much TV you can watch, and so many hours you can sleep. Other than that, you’re sitting there waiting for an email to pop in.”

Culmer, like most people, does not have a problem staying at home when it’s by choice, but as soon as it was dictated, cabin fever set in.

“It’s just difficult. I’m not really someone who goes out a lot, but it’s just that knowing I can’t go and that it’s restricted. Let me be able to jump in my car and go somewhere,” she said.

Cabin fever is a term used to describe a set of symptoms that people experience when they have been forced to isolate, stay indoors or be confined without their usual contact with others for an appreciable length of time, according to psychiatrist Dr. Nelson Clarke. He says anyone can experience cabin fever.

Even though Culmer’s working from home with her family around, she said it hasn’t staved off the stifling feelings. She likes to be personable with her clients and now does everything digitally.

As humans are social beings, Clarke said it’s just natural to interact with others one-on-one and in groups.

“For many people, complying with the very necessary restrictions to address the spread of the COVID-19 virus means that we may have to spend hours or days without our usual contact with others and be confined to our homes. In some instance, people are living alone. It is likely that some persons may find themselves experiencing some of the symptoms that are indicative of cabin fever. The longer we might have to maintain the curfew, the more likely that some persons will experience cabin fever.”

Cabin fever symptoms

Restlessness or agitation, feeling lethargic, feelings of sadness, despondency or depression, trouble with concentration and feeling irritable are some of the symptoms people may experience.

Feeling irritable, food cravings, increased appetite and overeating, loss of interest generally, feeling unmotivated, feelings of loneliness, feeling bored, sleeping and napping and hopelessness, the doctor said, are all indicative symptoms.

Culmer just wants to be able to get out.

According to the doctor, cabin fever is really a reaction rather than an illness. And he says there are no specific treatments.

“Most people find ways to help themselves cope. When these symptoms are present, it might be tempting to immediately conclude that the person is suffering from a mood disorder such as depressive illness, but it’s important not to rush to place a diagnostic label without a complete mental health evaluation being done. Cabin fever can easily be mistaken for something else.”

Anyone who thinks they may be experiencing cabin fever and has tried, but been unable to shake off the symptoms, might benefit from discussing it with their primary care physician or with a mental health professional.

“Reaction, condition, illness…whatever we choose to call it, it can be distressing, and we need to be prepared just in case we find ourselves or people near to us, bothered by it.”

Things that have been found to help

The doctor said just getting outside of the house for an hour helps.

“As simple as sitting outdoors with a good book or a couple of good magazines or spiritual literature, or just relaxing outside and doing some meditation, is found to help many people. Any kind of exercise outdoors helps.”

If it is not possible to get outdoors, he encouraged opening windows and doors so that outside can be seen, and allowing sunlight to enter. Being able to observe and connect with what is happening outside, he said, seems to be the next best thing to getting outside.

Culmer’s employer plans to open its office for two hours to give staff the opportunity to retrieve anything vital they need to continue to working from home. She plans to take advantage of it.

“I was so happy I got that email. I can’t wait to get out of the house to go to the office. I’m going to spend the entire two hours there,” she said.

Culmer is just one of hundreds of thousands of people stuck at home as the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic. The Bahamas has 14 confirmed cases.

Clarke said it’s important for people to create a personal agenda for the day with activities and goals that can be achieved. He said achieving goals gives a sense of satisfaction.

He encourages people to try to maintain a regular pattern of sleeping and waking; having meals at regular times; and keeping snacking and mindless eating to the absolute minimum.

Engaging in brain-stimulating activities that pose a mental challenge like puzzles, learning or brushing up on a skill (playing a musical instrument or a second language) are good things to do. He said this could be a good time for people to catch up on reading they had planned to do but just never got around to doing.

While at home, the psychiatrist said, people should use the time to contact friends or family that they’ve not heard from for a while; and to make use of the telephone or computer to reach out to them. If internet and social media are used to connect with others, and have constructive and meaningful exchanges, he said, this can be a great way to relieve the boredom and feelings of isolation.

While passive television can be entertaining, he said game shows and exercise programs can be engaging and have other benefits – fitness, relaxation, stress relief – and can help in lifting people’s mood.

“Sometimes there are tasks and projects that we had planned to address, but just didn’t have the time to do them. Being housebound, this might be a good time to get on with them.”

If the distress is simply too much, and nothing seems to help, the doctor said people then need to seek help. They can contact their primary care doctor, or call the hotline set up by the Bahamas Psychological Association in conjunction with the Ministry of Health, the Pan American Health Organization and the Public Hospitals Authority at 819-7652, 816-3799, 812-0576 or 815-5850.

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