‘Cabin fever’ isn’t a formal psychological term, but it describes the feelings of restlessness and irritability that many of us experience when stuck indoors, especially during the recent lockdown months. This angsty frustration is quite understandable, as confinement can thwart what many psychologists consider to be our three basic psychological needs: ‘autonomy’ (choosing what we do), ‘competence’ (feeling like we’re achieving our aims, for example by mastering skills and situations, which is tricky when you can’t go out), and ‘relatedness’ (feeling connected to others).
Potentially compounding matters is the loss of opportunity for physical exercise, fresh air and sunlight, which are all good for our bodily and psychological wellbeing. If you’re stuck on your own, loneliness is another obvious risk; on the other hand, excessive time in close quarters with housemates, partners, siblings or parents can lead to rising tensions.
Thankfully, these sources of angst also point to ways to reduce it. Try to structure each day so that you have some feelings of control, consider using the time as a chance to learn new skills, and be sure to stay in touch with absent friends and family via phone or video call. Also, exercise regularly if you can, and respect the privacy and space of those you live with. Finally, if you have the luxury of a garden or balcony, don’t forget to get some fresh air.
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.