“Cabin fever” is an expression that has been around for well over 100 years. Originally, it described the irritable feelings of people who lived way out in the country and who were stuck in their “cabins” due to winter cold and snow, without the ability to get roads plowed. Without phones, mail, email, or social media, country people in those days often lived in isolation for weeks, even months at a time. Their only social interactions were with the people they lived with. Over time, people got restless and irritable. They felt sick with loneliness. No wonder it was called a “fever.”

Fast forward to today: The pandemic has got us “snowed in” big time. Staying at home and separate from others is not something we expected or are used to, which is making it all the more stressful. A great many people have come down with modern day cabin fever.

Cabin fever is not an official diagnosis. It is not listed in the DSM-5, the manual of mental illness used by mental health professionals. Nonetheless, it is generally acknowledged by mental health professionals as a very real thing.

“Symptoms” include feelings of restlessness, irritability, lethargy, and impatience. Often it triggers sleep disorders with people either sleeping too little or too much. Anxious people are likely to become more anxious. Depressed people are likely to become more depressed. People who are extroverted and social, social, social feel upset and stressed. People who are scared of someone they live with walk on eggshells so as not to set off the problem person (who is also irritable and impatient). Some people start to become distrustful, even paranoid, with the people they live with, the people on the news, and the news media itself.

The limitations on lifestyle caused by the pandemic were already a lot to deal with. Cabin fever in 2020 has become an additional real and challenging issue. Many people feel stuck between their fear of getting sick and their fear of “going crazy” from the isolation.

The key to withstanding this challenging time is to control what we can. We can’t control the pandemic, but we can control how we respond to it by obeying the rules of social distancing. We can’t control feelings of cabin fever, but we can control what we do when our four walls begin to feel like they are closing in.

How to Cope with Cabin Fever

Establish a routine: It adds stress to your life if you have to figure out what you will do each hour of every day. Before COVID-19, you had some kind of structure, even if it was pretty loose. Give yourself a schedule of sorts with times for getting up and going to bed, mealtimes, and times set aside for projects and for maintaining contact with others.

Get outside: If you live where it is safe to go for walks or to get out in the yard, make a point to do so for an hour or so every day. If all you have is a balcony, get out there. If you don’t have that, open windows and breathe in the fresh air. Connecting with nature, however you can do it, is healing.

Maintain contact virtually: Use the means available to you to connect virtually. Check in with the people you miss seeing on social media. Set up group chats with family and friends. Create or join a virtual book group or hobby network or recipe exchange.

Maintain socially distant contact: Feeling “in it together’ combats our feelings of being alone. Friends can go for walks together as long as they maintain social distance of 6 or more feet. People can dance or tai chi or exercise together by finding a parking lot or open field and staying socially distant while they do it. Yes, such measures can feel awkward, but no one ever died from awkwardness.

Do projects: Most people have a list of things they’ve meant to “get around to” when they had time. Now you have time. Spend more time with your kids. Play board games. Teach them something you’ve wished you had time to teach them. — Clean out that closet. Get pictures out of that shoebox and into frames or albums. Try out that recipe. Start to learn a foreign language in anticipation of a trip you want to take someday. Take up writing or painting or sewing – whatever you’ve always wished you had time to do. Accomplishing something will make you feel better about how you spent your day.

Pay it forward: Be one of the helpers. Organize a virtual fund raiser for a local non-profit that needs help. Volunteer to call elderly people for a daily check in and conversation. Tutor kids online (and give their parents a break) by coaching a kid through a school subject you know how to do. Look around for a way that you can be (safely) helpful. People who are altruistic tend to be happier and healthier.

Balance alone and together time: Constant togetherness can be as challenging as constant aloneness. Establish a balance with the people you live with. Make sure that each of you have some alone time. This is especially true for parents who are on call 24/7. Find a way to establish a little “me time” every day.

Accept, Accept: As of today, there is no way for anyone to know exactly how long we’re all going to have to keep social distance in order to keep ourselves and our communities safe. Not having a “light at the end of this tunnel” is part of what makes it so hard. We’re not in control of when this will end or how we live in the meantime. But we can reduce our stress by finding a way to accept that this is the way things are for a while. Breathe. Lose yourself in music. Dance. Meditate. Practice yoga. Pray. Take it one day at a time. Do whatever works for you to help you stay reasonably calm in this unsettling time.