Day 27… I have run out of Cheese It’s. The Gilmore Girls witty banter no longer soothes my consciousness and Captain Picard’s voice is the only thing tethering me to reality…
Okay, it is actually only day 12 for me, but it certainly feels longer.
Hopefully you, like many of us, are self-isolating as much as possible and are practicing social distancing. And while this is essential for slowing the spread of the virus, it can play havoc on your mental health.
Quarantine & Cabin Fever
As we are all self-isolating as much as possible and businesses remain closed, our levels of human contact and normal everyday routines are being severely disrupted. Working from home, or being out of work entirely, time starts to lose its meaning. Days blur into one another and we lay around in our pajamas and binge watch old episodes of Mythbusters for the four thousandth time.
Having other people with you can either help or make it harder. Another person, child, or pet can keep your consistent and grounded as their routines remain fixed. The dog still needs to be walked three times a day, at least, your partner still watched Ellen every day at 4 pm, the toddler still wakes up at 5 am. Other times having another person there can make the effects of isolation feel worse if your internal clocks become increasingly disparate. When one person is waking up at 3 am and barely sleeping and the other is sleeping 12+ hours a day it can feel almost as isolating as if you were on your own.
All of this contributes to a well-established psychological state known more commonly as ‘Cabin Fever’.
Isolation, Depression and Anxiety
Cabin Fever is a very real mental health phenomenon that most people who live up north are intimately familiar with. The MythBusters did an experiment to demonstrate the various symptoms (currently available on Hulu) back in 2008. Lethargy, irritability, loss of patience, difficulty concentrating, loss of interest, trouble sleeping. All of these are symptoms of cabin fever. They can also be symptoms of depression and can be extremely destructive to our mental health.
Add to that the anxiety and uncertainty around everything that is happening in the world around us and it can be easy to see how people may struggle.
Combating Cabin Fever
Various medical resources such as the World Health Organization and Psychology Today have useful and more comprehensive information on how to deal with Cabin Fever, like this collated article on WebMD HERE, but below I have narrowed it down to the top three techniques for dealing with cabin fever.
Combat Cabin Fever by Going for a Walk
I know, I know. It sounds stupid. It’s also something that people have probably already been telling you to do. But did you actually do it?
One of the contributing factors to cabin fever is the lack of direct sunlight. Broad-spectrum UV radiation, at safe levels, has a number of widespread health benefits. The Mayo Clinic discusses using a ‘Light Box’ to treat seasonal affective disorder HERE, which is commonly associated with cabin fever. Seasonal affective disorder and cabin fever are not the same, but they share many symptoms and often overlap. Seasonal Affective Disorder is also known as the ‘winter blues’, but the poor weather, shorter days, an increased amount of time spent indoors can all contribute to feelings of cabin fever, which could occur at any time of the year.
Here in South Florida, we are lucky enough to have a warm sunny climate for most of the year and, as coronavirus is not airborne, we are able to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine without investing in a lightbox. A short, 10-20 minute walk just around your neighborhood as an excellent way to soak up some sunlight and fresh air. Feel free to put on music or your favorite podcast as you walk, but avoid just staring at the screen for the entire time. If a walk around the neighborhood isn’t possible, just sitting on your balcony or front step and soaking up whatever light you can is still a good way to ease yourself back into reality more gently.
If however, you live in a climate that is more gray and cloudy than blue and sunny, a lightbox might be a good investment if you find that you are particularly affected by the lack of light exposure. Various models are available for purchase over the internet with contactless delivery available.
Help Your Mental Health by Exercising Vigorously for 10 Minutes
Gyms may be closed and, if you’re like me, you weren’t going to one anyways. But being stuck inside for several days at a time can make anyone a little bit twitchy. Instead of fighting those nervous instincts, it is far better, and healthier, to let them out.
The next time you are feeling just a little bit jumpy put on some pumping music, set a timer for 10 minutes, and go to town. Run in place, do jumping jacks, do pushups, do crunches, squats, or high knees. Dance like nobody is watching. Don’t pause, don’t wait, just go to town, pushing yourself comfortably but firmly until you are mentally and physically exhausted. The point is not to get in a comprehensive workout, but just to move and release all that pent up energy and anxiety in a healthy way.
Avoid scrolling through exercise workouts until you find one you like. The next time you feel jittery, just turn on the music and do what feels comfortable, even if that’s only latent memories of the 4th-grade presidential fitness test, as long as you just keep moving. After you’ve burned off all, or at least some, of your nervous energy, you can always look through exercise routines or YouTube videos for things to use the next time.
Vigorous exercise produces endorphins, increases the oxygenation of your blood and muscles and provides a cathartic release that can help to settle anxious minds and refocus us mentally, physically and emotionally. Regular exercise can also help promote GABA production, increases your mental fitness and clarity, and elevates your mood.
Elle Woods said it best – “Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands.”
Shock Yourself by Taking a Cold Shower
For the record? I absolutely HATE this method. That does not mean it does not work or that I have not already used it twice this week, but it still seriously sucks.
For our purposes, a ‘cold’ shower is anything below about 70 degrees Fahrenheit. We are not talking Ice Bucket challenge temperatures here, just low enough when compared to normal human body temperature to trigger a small shock reaction. Also, while extended cold showers can help with things like inflammation, muscle soreness or joint pain, this only requires about 30-60 seconds under the spray.
Stepping into a cold shower shocks the body by constricting the blood vessels, thereby forcing the heart and lungs to punch in that bit of extra effort to keep things circulating. It sends an electrical jolt through the peripheral nervous system straight into the brain which triggers a fight or flight response that promotes mental clarity. Cold showers affect the metabolism by tricking your body into thinking you need to burn more calories to stay warm, and it can actually affect your blood sugar (Diabetics, talk to your doctor before starting a cold shower routine). Alternating between a warm shower and a blast of cold also works, but if that is your preferred method you should always end on cold for the best results.
All of these come down to some form of physical shock. Why? Because the human body is an amazing and complex biomechanical construct – it knows when to prioritize certain stimuli over others as a matter of survival.
Ever had a headache and then stubbed your toe? Yeah, bet your head did not hurt after that. Your body actually took in the new information of ‘stubbed toe’ in the form of nerve impulses, compared it to your headache, and decided that it was more important for you to deal with the new painful stimuli rather than your dully throbbing head. It works in much the same way that our ancient ancestors would have prioritized being clawed by a saber tooth tiger as more relevant than a mild sunburn and therefor reacted accordingly.
Shocking your body physically, whether through light and stimulation, vigorous exercise, or cold, is the surest, simplest and safest way to shake yourself out of a mental funk and reorient focus to what is important. Various tactics and techniques have been used over the decades, and even centuries, to help combat depression, seasonal affective disorder, and our old friend ‘cabin fever’. We picked out these three because they are the easiest, can be almost universally applied and, at least in our experience, work.
As always, if you feel your mental health begins to deteriorate, exhibit unusual behavior or find yourself having thoughts of self-harm please seek out emergency medical help. Resources are available even under self-isolation advisories and quarantine measures. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255 as well as the National Alliance on Mental Health at 1-800-950-6264. Other resources such as dedicated video counseling are available through various apps and you can always reach the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 741741.
The methods listed above can help shake you out of a funk, but they are not necessarily enough to stop you from sliding back into one. It is important to find a routine or activity, we will discuss a few options next week, to help keep you grounded and locked in over the coming weeks as it is looking increasingly likely that we are in this for the long haul.
Stay Safe. Stay Sane. Stay with us.