Cabin fever

Tired of shoveling snow? Feeling cooped up by the winter weather? More than a few of us are probably beginning to develop cabin fever, that feeling of crankiness, restlessness and boredom that often sets in among people who are confined indoors too long.

The term “cabin fever” originated in the American West in the early 1900s and was first used to describe the negative effects of being pent up in an isolated cabin. Being shut in, especially in winter, can have a definite impact on mental health, the Midwest Center for Stress and Anxiety explains:

While not an actual disease foreshadowing insanity, cabin fever can be a very real claustrophobic reaction which occurs when a person is isolated for long periods of time. A lack of environmental stimulation, lack of physical exercise and the shortened daylight hours of winter can have a detrimental effect on the healthiest of psyches.

Symptoms often include lethargy, grouchiness, a lack of motivation, cravings for high-carb foods and weight gain. Most of the time, cabin fever isn’t serious. Among some people, though, it can be a sign of seasonal affective disorder or depression and may require some kind of intervention.

How can you tell when cabin fever has crossed the line into something more pervasive? If winter blues are affecting your work, your relationships and your quality of life, you probably have something more than cabin fever, mental health experts advise. Light therapy, psychotherapy or antidepressant medication might be indicated. For some reason, younger people and women seem to be more vulnerable to the winter blahs; SAD also is more prevalent in northern latitudes where winter daylight hours are significantly shorter.

But if what you have is garden-variety cabin fever, a simple change of pace and an effort to be more social and active is usually enough to restore your normal frame of mind. From the U.S. Air Force base in Minot, N.D., (where they really know something about cabin fever) comes this good advice:

One key to a speedy recovery is being able to recognize the symptoms of cabin fever which include but are not limited to: crankiness, loss of sleep, overeating and feeling down due to the inactivity. The idea is not to subject yourself to depression and added stress because of the cold weather. A change in scenery is simple but a tremendous help in overcoming winter blues.

When the Post-Gazette of Pittsburgh, Pa., queried people about how they coped with cabin fever, they got a variety of responses. A long-distance truck driver said he listened to loud country music on the radio. One woman walks her dog outdoors four to five times a day. Others said they volunteer or, when the weather is bad, they stay indoors, read, do crossword puzzles and clean the house.

My personal remedy usually involves an expedition to the Willmar Public Library for a few good books, or a leisurely weekend fortified with homemade soup and quality time with my kitty and canary. It works like a charm, every single time. And when all else fails, well, the first day of spring is only five and a half weeks away.

West Central Tribune file photo by Carolyn Lange

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