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Climbing the Walls?

Self-help for seasonal blues

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Climbing the Walls?

Winter days are short and tempers are even shorter. In short, we suffer from cabin fever, symptoms of which are similar to seasonal effective disorder.

Winter days are short and tempers are even shorter. By the middle of February many of us feel bored, dissatisfied, and strongly tempted to throttle the people who share our home.

In short, we suffer from cabin fever–the common name for the grab bag of unhappy moods we experience when we spend too much time shut inside, especially in winter.

A Range of Emotion

Although it is similar to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), cabin fever is much more complex, says Dr. Paul Rosenblatt, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who studied the condition in the 1980s, before the term “seasonal affective disorder” came into common usage.

“Cabin fever covers a much wider range of patterns than seasonal affective disorder,” he says. It can include feelings of claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces) and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), as well as a mild form of the depression that is typical of SAD.

These winter blues affect about 15 percent of Canadians, whereas only 2 to 3 percent suffer from full-blown SAD, says Vicki Rogers, co-founder of the Mood Disorders Association of BC.

Researchers believe that SAD is triggered by the absence of light in winter; conversely, cabin fever is more likely to be caused by our physical surroundings–for example, being housebound with small children.

Housebound and Unhappy

“You can get really frustrated,” admits Catherine Curren, a Calgary public health nurse and mother of two lively youngsters. “I get moody when they can’t go out and play.”

Women, who are more likely than men to stay home caring for family, are also more likely to say they suffer from cabin fever.

“It could be that women are more in touch with their feelings and more willing to talk about them,” Rosenblatt says.

Or it could be that women generally feel unhappier than men. Two soon-to-be-published studies–one by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist, and the other by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the University of Pennsylvania–recently identified a growing happiness gap between men and women, in part because women spend more time doing tasks they don’t enjoy.

Like Bears Hibernating

It doesn’t help that, in winter, we often do the wrong things to boost our mood.

“The tendency is to lock ourselves inside and maybe curl up with a book,” Rogers says, noting that sometimes we also turn to carbohydrate-rich comfort foods. “We’re like bears hibernating.”

Ultimately, cabin fever is a self-help condition.

“I think you just have to find humour in it all,” Curren says. “There are days when you cry, for sure. But the most important thing is to get outside. Stay inside, and cabin fever hits.”

What to Do When the Walls Close In

  • Get outside and stay active. “The most important thing is to spend time outdoors during the day and maximize sunlight exposure,” Rogers says. “It’s well known that physical activity reduces stress. Make the effort and your physical and mental well-being will benefit.”
  • Even if you feel like burrowing under the blankets, take time to commiserate with others. Your social network is a buffer against ill health and isolation.
  • Send yourself flowers. A Harvard study commissioned by the American Society of Florists found that people with flowers in their homes feel less anxious and depressed.
  • If you can, escape to a sunny destination. If you can’t, follow the example of 19th-century settlers–plan a craft project or social gathering for those times when cabin fever strikes.
  • If you feel persistently depressed, anxious, or exhausted, see a doctor. You might be suffering from more than just the winter blues.
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