Combating Cabin Fever and Staying Productive in These Times

How to stay well—mind and body—amid coronavirus directives.

Posted Mar 19, 2020

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Source: Shutterstock

With the new directives to practice social distancing (maintaining > 6 feet of physical distance from other people, or avoiding direct contact with people or objects—no hugs or handshakes—in public places during the current coronavirus outbreak to minimize exposure and reduce the transition of infection), we are urged to work from home, avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, and do so to protect ourselves and the larger community. The goal of this public health practice is to slow the spread of COVID-19, or "flatten the curve," by preventing sick people from coming into close contact with healthy people in order to reduce opportunities for disease transmission. We need to slow the outbreak so that we can reduce the chance of infection among high-risk populations that are most likely to have severe complications, and to reduce the burden on health care systems and workers. 

But these directives, while imperative and clearly necessary, have direct tolls on our mental and physical health. We will be more prone to experience symptoms of cabin fever, including restlessness, lethargy, sadness, problems concentrating, irritability, decreased motivation, feelings of being stuck, claustrophobia, and impulsive decision making. We are less able to traverse wider distances for exercise or social gatherings. We isolate from others, and we know that loneliness and perceived dissatisfaction with social interactions can wreak havoc on our well-being. In addition, it can be a very rough transition to working mostly or completely from home, and for some of us, also having to manage homeschooling children and managing behaviors on top of our adult responsibilities. It can feel overwhelming, and with no specific end in sight, the unknowns of how long this new normal will last and what it will look like as the situation unfolds is bound to cause heightened anxiety and stress.

Despite these challenges, all is not lost, because there are evidence-based tips on how we can make the most of these times, stay productive, and still tend to our physical and mental health. 

1. Keep a routine. Make sure you devise a daily routine that mimics what you did prior to social distancing directives. This means getting up at the same hour every day (set an alarm clock if you need to), showering and getting dressed as if you were going to work outside the home (and direct your children to do the same), and having “work hours” when you focus on industrious activities and “home hours” where you focus on family togetherness and relaxation. 

2. Stick to a schedule. It can be very easy to mix business with pleasure as well as other distractions when you are working from home (and when you are homeschooling kids). So make sure you stick to a schedule every day, even on weekends (although the schedule can vary more on those days to allow additional time for leisure, relaxation, and taking care of needs for your home). It can be helpful to map out the routine visually on a handout. Put it up where everyone can reference it easily, like on the wall of the living room, on the refrigerator, or in hallways.

A good rule of thumb is to schedule by types of activities on the half-hour or hour. Each person, adult or child, should make sure that their day consists of activities that speak to the following four categories:

  • Learning/work activities
  • Leisure activities
  • Responsibility activities
  • Social connection activities

3. Designate areas of the home for various activities. Certain areas of the home should be set aside for work (or homework for kids) and relaxation. Do not conflate the two. It can be tempting to bring your laptop to the dinner table or to work in bed. Don’t do this! Make sure that you have a space in the home, whether it is a room or table or corner of the house, where you work. When you are done with work, you leave those designated areas and spend time in the other areas of the house. Don’t return to your “workspace” until the next scheduled work period. 

4. Find creative ways to socially engage. We are social animals and we need meaningful social engagement. We can do this by making sure we touch base with loved ones in real life by calls or video chat. This can be additionally bolstered by having a shared experience. For example, eat lunch or dinner with a loved one over video chat. Watch a movie together while on video chat and share commentary and opinions about the film during or after. Make sure you do this a few times a week. 

5. Move around every hour. Part of the stress related to cabin fever is being stuck in one place. And certainly, with these directives, we may feel out of control and stuck in our situation without any way out. Physically moving around every hour, even if it is within your home, can do wonders. So set a timer that will go off on the hour, and when it rings, get up from your seated position, and take a mini-lap around your home, tend to a chore, or simply stand and stretch. 

6. Open the shades (and get outside). Whenever possible, try to get outside, even for a few minutes a day, to take in the fresh air and the outdoors. Research shows this is especially effective in the morning hours to align with human beings’ circadian rhythm which can also help promote better quality sleep. If you are unable to get outside, open the shades. This can help ward off claustrophobia and boost your mood. 

7. Avoid binge-watching anything (or binge video game-playing). It would be so easy to pass the time with hours of Netflix or Call of Duty. But doing this can actually lead to feelings of depression and hopelessness, according to research. Limit yourself to two hours per day for video and media consumption. This would include leisure shows, the news, and social media. 

8. Take deep breaths and combat defeatist thinking. In these unprecedented times, it is easy to lose hope or feel absolutely inefficacious about how you can improve the circumstances. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the challenges, take deep breaths. This resets your brain and body and tells it to chill out and veer away from a state of emergency or fight or flight. Then, manage any negative, catastrophic thinking. Thoughts are just mental events and not necessarily reflective of the truth, even when it feels that way! Try this evidence-based technique from the ACT literature called defusion. Whatever negative or catastrophic thought you are having, put the clause, “I am having the thought that …” in front of it. This takes the wind out of the sails of that negative thought just enough for you to feel more proactive and in charge of your life. So “I won’t be able to survive this” becomes “I am having the thought that I won’t be able to survive this.” This simple exercise of distancing from harmful thoughts without trying to change them is extremely helpful in helping to curb subsequent negative emotional or behavioral reactions.