With the recent COVID-19 outbreak, social distancing has been pushed to the collective forefront of the nation. We have all been advised to stay home, remain a certain distance from certain people, and to not attend large social gatherings. While I understand this is all for our safety, it does beg a few questions. What is going to be the long term effects of our long stay in? How are we going to cope with not being able to see people other than your own family for weeks, and maybe even months? It is all going to be interesting to see what actually will happen later down the line, but for know, let’s piece together what we know about social isolation.
First of all, why are we being asked to stay home in the first place? It seems like only older people or immunocompromised individuals are truly at risk of being in severe or critical condition. So why everyone? The reason is quite simple. By avoiding contact with others, we can reduce the spread of any disease, not just COVID-19. Also, by staying home, we “flatten the curve,” and don’t overly strain the load on our hospitals. If less people get the infection, hospitals would be able to better cope with the sudden increase of patients. Viruses like these can also be spread by something called “community spread.” This is when people get infected by the virus without any travel or known contact with an afflicted person. This is mainly because coronaviruses like COVID-19 are able to stick around in the air for some time, so infection without a vector, like a person, is definitely possible with this disease. By limiting interactions with others and by staying home as much as possible, we can reduce the severity and spread of viruses now and in the future.
The main question that’s on my mind, however, is how this prolonged social isolation will affect us psychologically. Already, I’m feeling like my social distancing has been going on for years, when in reality, at the time of writing, I’m on my third day of this. However, this is not the first time that humans have felt this way when they are isolated or trapped in a certain place or situation. This phenomenon is known as “cabin fever.” It’s not a disease, but rather it is the restlessness, claustrophobia, and general irritability that can be caused by being stuck in a place for an extended period of time. There is a single term for the effects caused by cabin fever: stir-crazy, where “stir” refers to a prison. Cabin fever can cause more serious afflictions like extended sleep, distrust of the people around you, or even urges to go outside, even in bad conditions. Cabin fever can also lead to the sufferer making extremely irrational decisions that could cost them their life, such as suicide, paranoia, or the aforementioned abadonment of the safety of their cabin in bad weather. Cabin fever doesn’t just apply to being in a nice cabin in the Alaskan wilderness, however. One can get the symptoms of cabin fever in basically any place where they are stuck for an extended period of time.
Why does cabin fever occur in the first place? What goes on in our brains that tells us to make some extremely irrational decisions, even when you are already safe? Cabin fever and other related afflictions are mostly caused by a drop in serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Serotonin regulates mood and social behavior, so it’s clear why it can cause these afflictions, but there is definitely more to this mystery.
Melatonin levels could also have a factor, as it regulates sleep patterns and mood. However, seasonal affective disorder can mostly be attributed to natural causes, like changes in sunlight. Sometimes, our circadian rhythm is unable to cope with the sudden increase or decrease in hours that the sun is out, causing problems all over our brains and bodies. But circadian rhythm doesn’t really explain cabin fever. Serotonin is definitely a common factor between the two, as evidenced by as study performed by multiple neuroscience research facilities in Denmark and Canada. They revealed the various signaling pathways that are affected by seasonal affective disorder. In their study of 19 females, they found that the 5-HTT pathway, or the cerebral serotonin transporter, is not effectively downregulated in females that experience regular seasonal affective disorder. The subjects that were more susceptible to the disorder were actually genetically different from those who were not, as they had the shorter 5-HTTLPR genotype. This means that seasonal affective disorder could actually be a genetic disorder that could be passed down from generation to generation, but it’s unknown, as there haven’t been enough studies on the matter. Below are some pictures from the study, with red areas representing increased 5-HTT responses with females without and with seasonal affective disorder.
Now that we know what can cause cabin fever, how can we avoid it? We are all going to be stuck indoors for the next few weeks, if not months, so it is paramount to keep our mental and physical health up. Sarita Robinson, a psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire, has shared some tips on how to avoid the negative effects of cabin fever in these trying times. One of the best things to do is to boost your immune system. You are not only fighting against COVID-19, you are also fighting against cabin fever. Obviously, good exercise and diet are very important, as getting the right vitamins and keeping your muscles engaged are very important for boosting your immune response, but they are not the only thing to do. You can also watch an interesting movie or listen to music that you like. Psychologists believe that keeping the brain interested is also a very effective way to improve your immune response. Structuring your day is also very important. By keeping a rigid schedule, you avoid getting stuck in a rut or being bored quickly as you always have something else to do. Maintaining contact with your friends and family is also important. If you intentionally keep yourself alone, you are exponentially increasing your chances of getting cabin fever. Finally, you want to avoid conflict. This is the main cliche of cabin fever, as it tends to cause wanton aggression and anger towards your friends and loved ones. Make sure you follow the above tips and stay positive about this whole situation. The last thing you want to do is fight with your loved ones in these times.
Finally, I want to close this month’s post on reducing anxiety about the COVID-19 situation in general. It is a very serious thing, but some people are becoming more anxious and nervous than ever, and I think it is important to remain calm and collected. There is a fantastic article I read on theladders.com detailing ways that we can stay calm. Every person calms down differently, so I am not going to share any specific tips.
Remember that it is very important to stay safe and healthy, and COVID-19 is not a joke. It absolutely has the power to not just make you very sick, but it can also kill your loved ones. This is the worst pandemic we have experienced in a very long time, and it is important to follow the recommendations of the CDC, WHO, and other health authorities. Wash your hands as frequently as possible, practice social distancing, and remain hygienic. Thank you all for reading, and stay safe.