On the Trail 11-23-09
November 23, 2009
It was irrational and even at the time she realized that, but Joanna Chase felt trapped by the steadily falling snow that had already piled at least 3-feet deep in her driveway and the plow had not come, so she insisted husband Jim begin shoveling a pathway to the road.
To his credit Jim stuck with the job all day, facing the Herculean job of clearing by hand a driveway that was nearly a mile long. He got about 3-feet from the house, his task made impossible by snow piling up, indulging Joanna as she faced her most severe test of cabin fever during her three years living in Alaska.
Cabin fever, a term that originated in the West in the 19th century, alludes to being cooped up in a cabin where you feel anxiety or distress. Symptoms include irritability, restlessness and boredom, all caused from a lack of environmental stimulation, often because the individual lives in a sparsely populated area, or is confined to an indoor area.
Doctors and mental health experts call it “sensory-deprivation syndrome.”
For most, cabin fever is a temporary condition that is eased by a change in the weather – so the driveway can be plowed – or interaction with people.
For Joanna Chase, the three years of long nights in Alaska, where the sun came up briefly but was down again by 2 p.m., respite from cabin fever came through regular social outings with other women. With their children, women in her neighborhood gathered for Bible study and social visiting. Even when weather conditions were the harshest, they bundled children into “five layers of clothing” and sent them outside to play.
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Now living near Cody, Joanna, an archaeologist and social worker, who has a private archaeological consulting business and also works as a supervisor for child protective services, has not experienced any symptoms of cabin fever. Now she spends as much time outdoors as possible all through the year – and that, research shows, is one antidote to cabin fever.
Cabin fever can affect people everywhere, but is most predominant in areas with harsh climates and at northern latitudes where there is less sunlight. In the far north – Alaska, Canada and the Yukon – the malady can become severe and require mental health treatment or light therapy. In its most severe form, cabin fever is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and it can occur at any time of year, although most often in winter.
People react to cabin fever in a variety of ways. For some, there is confusion or bewilderment. Others, according to Paul Rosenblatt, University of Minnesota social science professor, blame themselves for the cabin fever of someone they live with, thinking it is caused by something in the relationship. They feel guilty about doing something that might have little to do with their partner’s depression.
Rosenblatt’s research of cabin fever was conducted two decades ago, but many of the issues he studied remain relevant. He became interested in cabin fever after moving to Minnesota where, “winter is really long and this time of year we get very little sun and the winter goes on and on and on,” he said in a telephone interview. Though his research was conducted solely in Minnesota, many of his findings relate to other parts of the country. “All sorts of people can get it. If you’re home with kids, little kids, or you’re home with somebody who is sick, you’re more likely to get it,” he said.
The most common symptom of cabin fever is irritability.
“You can feel it just because you’re in a rut even if you are not at home” and therefore confined to a “cabin” or house. Some people are more restricted in their lives while others “get more locked in, like a woman with little kids, who has more responsibility than her partner,” Rosenblatt said.
But just because two women with small children the same ages stay home every day, that doesn’t mean both will suffer from the same degree of cabin fever – if it affects them at all. Rosenblatt says, “People differ in how much tolerance they can have for routine and rutness. Sometimes people can feel very secure living in a rut.” For those people predictability is good, while it spins others toward depression.
While certain locales might have more people affected by cabin fever not all people will react the same. In his study, Rosenblatt interviewed an old Norwegian. The man was working then as a dairy farmer, but he had earlier spent time as a lumber jack. The man said he had not been affected while living in Norway – where winters can often seem dreary – nor in his life as a dairy farmer, but he and many others had been affected while they worked in isolated timber camps.
Further, areas like Minnesota and Seattle, that have fewer days of sunshine each year, generally have residents who are more susceptible to the effects of cabin fever while the effects are generally less prevalent in a state like Wyoming where the sun shines a good portion of the time, even if it is cold, snowy, and windy.
Rosenblatt’s study shows that, “More women had a lot to say about it, but I don’t know that that means women were affected more.” However, the National Institute for Mental Health has reported that the malady affects far more women than men.
The Minnesota study did reveal gender differences in how people coped with cabin fever. Women more often called a friend or relative, or planned a social outing. “Men had projects they saved up, so that if they had cabin fever they had that door to repair, that birdfeeder to make,” Rosenblatt said.
And because cabin fever can occur annually, people who are routinely affected have learned to be prepared; they save up “honey-do” projects or engage in crafts or other creative work, he said.
The most important issue for anyone with cabin fever, Rosenblatt says, is to “realize that’s what you’ve got. Some people don’t catch on so easily so they start blaming other people. You have to catch on that it’s really something that’s happening to you.”
Once people recognize the symptoms and realize they are suffering from cabin fever, they should figure out what works for them to ease the depression … whether that is planning a get together with friends, taking a trip, or, in some cases, just the opportunity to “get off by yourself,” Rosenblatt said. At the extreme there are people who might need professional help including counseling or utilization of light therapy, which can be extremely effective, Rosenblatt said.
Although the holidays are hard for some people, for others “the worst time is late winter or early spring, after you’ve had a thaw … and another blizzard comes through and you think it’s never going to end,” Rosenblatt said.
My take on cabin fever: get outside, meet a friend, or take a trip … If you can’t take a trip because you are stuck at home due to snowdrifts, bad roads, or even the fact that you have to feed the cattle every day … you can still take a trip by reading a book, or planning a vacation to some exotic, warm place … that kind of armchair traveling is often as fun, and more relaxing than the real deal!