Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Cabin Fever Ravages Us as It Makes Itself Known Again Everywhere

There is no DSM category for it and no ICD-10, either, but cabin fever is as dangerous to our mental health now as it has always been in the past.

The virus and its variants now swirling around the globe have apparent symptoms both visible and hidden, and it may be the hidden ones that pose the most risk for our physical and mental health. Previously, when our country was in its infancy, those who sought a new life in the West were frequently prisoners in snow-bound cabins. I suspect this is still true for those who have sought a life in our far northern state of Alaska.

Women were left for months as men went on scouting or hunting jaunts, but the mental anguish of those in the cabins hasn’t, to my mind, been adequately documented. They did, however, come up with a word for this overwhelming psychological pain, cabin fever. Relinquishing it to only the snow-bound or isolated areas is a naive premise as we now see it in a new context, major cities.

The COVID‐19 pandemic and prolonged confinement and isolation during lockdown measures have had a deleterious impact on the mental health of children and young people. During this last year, the social contexts for children and young people have been markedly different from what they will have experienced before. Indeed, they have been living through ‘the greatest confinement in history.’ Children and young people have been subject to disrupted education at school, college, and university, as well as hampered transition into training or the workforce for the first time.”

Apparently, cabin fever has infected the young and adults, and this is where it may do its most damage in the future. Having committed no crime and often with fluctuating rules for safety from infection, children and adults are subjected to periods of isolation and disruption of what we have come to know as our “normal” lives.

Today, normal is in flux and what the future holds is equally troubling in its uncertainty. This uncertainty aspect fuels the disturbing instances of stress-related behaviors we are seeing reported in homes, work settings, and even violence in transportation on planes and buses.

Matters are made that much worse when we are receiving conflicting messages from our health authorities about virus protection and masks, the need for isolation and lockdowns, and how long these imposed periods of segregation must last.

Anthropologists have established our need for community, free access to socialization, and the interactions that bring bonding and security. But this social aspect of our lives is at risk, and we are currently fighting against millennia of genetics. No matter how creative we may think we have become in substituting technology for human interaction, I doubt we have accomplished our goals.

Do we still, intrinsically, unconsciously crave the warmth of human skin, the smell of someone’s hair, the touch of fabric, or the beauty of the natural voice? Some have said we are victims of touch starvation, which is an apt way to describe our current state. It is exactly what we find in cabin fever.

The computer screen or cell facetime are pale substitutions for our human needs. It’s like trying to substitute water for cream in a recipe; it doesn’t work. Yes, it may seem like the thread of human need is being maintained, but is it really? Are we trying to evolve into something akin to the robots about which corporate America crows so much? How much are we losing in this process? Only time will tell.

What is the reason for the dramatic, expressed need for mental health services for our children at school or home? The need is more than urgent, as the CEO of the APA expressed it. “Children and adolescents have been especially affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, experiencing higher rates of stress, anxiety, and fear. Social isolation, financial uncertainty, and disrupted routines place considerable stress on children and their families.”

I wonder if the extraordinary success of fantasy films worldwide is a means to quell the fear of children and adults alike; the hero always wins in the end. Obviously, it’s not wise to go to movie theaters, but many are now streamed.

Is this our modern-day version of Little Red Riding Hood, who manages to deceive the wolf or Hansel & Gretel in the witch’s clutches? Obviously, the wolf and the witch are metaphors for the current virus and the question of a safe world, as are the superheroes.

We are frantically seeking ways to soothe ourselves. Is it any wonder that people are scoffing at wearing masks and violating restrictions on going to social events? The need is so strong, and the time during which we have been denied seems to linger on.

How much longer can we tolerate it and maintain our sanity, or is a new vaccine the answer? Whatever it is, we are suffering in ways we will only realize in decades to come. No, I’m not a doomsday prognosticator. I think I’m being pragmatic.

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Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

DR PATRICIA FARRELL

Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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