My wife is a travel nut and, because we’re taking every precaution to avoid risks during the Covid pandemic, she is feeling like she’s in prison, praying for a pardon. Jaunts to the grocery store and gas station are now exciting in light of our self-imposed stay-at-home lifestyle; we live in a densely populated area that, unfortunately, has seen more than its share of serious cases. She’s driving us both bananas – frustrated and cranky and itchy all the time – and I fear that she could unravel without travel. How can I help her – and myself?
– Wanderlust in Florida
Who would have thought six months ago that driving ten minutes for a box of Froot Loops could feel so liberating that it might be this year’s equivalent of, say, a week in the Virgin Islands? Or that a trek to your local park might provide the goose bumps of euphoria that you might experience during a stroll around the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower or the Great Wall of China? Remember this perspective down the road when your dear bride says she wants to take a $20,000 tour of Italy.
The Sage relates to your situation, as a member of his family, too, eagerly awaits a Covid vaccine and expects to find herself on a plane-to-wherever roughly two milliseconds after getting a dose. But we are not alone: Cabin fever – assuming that’s what this is, as opposed to clinical depression – has affected tens of millions of Americans, not just travel buffs. Many one day will be thrilled just to go to a restaurant, a movie theater, a place of worship, a sporting event or any kind of tourist attraction – even a place like Ben and Jerry's Flavor Graveyard in Waterbury, Vermont (yes, complete with headstones).
First off, cabin fever is defined by The Journal of Social Psychology as including “feelings of dissatisfaction at home, restlessness, boredom, irritability, and needing to break routine.” Other experts add more symptoms: loneliness, decreased motivation, impatience, anxiety, lack of motivation, and sadness.
Cabin fever is not classified as an official mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. Nonetheless it is real, although considered less series serious than the symptoms of depression: depressed mood most of the day, lack of interest in normal activities, significant changes in weight and sleeping patterns, constant fatigue, inability to concentrate, feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt, and thoughts of suicide.
OK, now that we have all that fun stuff out of the way, let’s examine ways of reducing cabin fever.
• “Pay attention to the words you are telling yourself,” says Jamie M. Gannon, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist at UC San Diego Health. “When phrases come up in your head, such as ‘I am stuck at home,’ encourage yourself to reframe the thought positively to ‘I am safe at home.’ Remind yourself that we’re all one day closer to vaccines and treatments.
• Judy Ho, Ph.D., a clinical and forensic neuropsychologist at Pepperdine University, also offers a way of reframing your thinking: “Whatever negative or catastrophic thought you are having, add the clause, ‘I am having the thought that …’ in front of it,” she said. “This takes the wind out of the sails of that negative thought just enough for you to feel more proactive and in charge of your life. So ‘I won’t be able to survive this’ becomes ‘I am having the thought that I won’t be able to survive this.’ This simple exercise of distancing from harmful thoughts without trying to change them is extremely helpful in helping to curb subsequent negative emotional or behavioral reactions.”
Other psychologists recommend that we:
• Stay socially engaged. Touch base often with loved ones. Use video chats to have meals with good friends and relatives. Express gratitude for having them in your life.
• Be creative and learn new things: a hobby, a skill, a language, a musical instrument, new recipes. Take an online course. Activities like these will engender a sense of accomplishment and, therefore, fulfillment.
“Create ‘zones’ at home, an Australian psychologist suggests. “Mark out different areas in your homes – areas to play, areas to operate electronics, your workstation, areas to watch together. Different zones will reduce the feeling of cabin fever.”
• Keep your home neat and reduce clutter. Open up rooms as much as possible. Perhaps you can put unnecessary items in a garage or basement to help create a sense of spaciousness. Do you really need those chairs, that table, that giant life-size statue of Darth Vader? Brighten the ambiance!
• Discuss household expectations for everyone in your home to help you all meet the challenge in a closed space – together. Help each other avoid the doldrums. Be upbeat.
• Move around every hour, says Dr. Ho. “Part of the stress related to cabin fever is being stuck in one place … physically moving around every hour, even if it is within your home, can do wonders …take a mini-lap around your home, tend to a chore, or simply stand and stretch.” She, like others, also recommends getting outside, even for a few minutes a day, to get fresh air and connect with nature. Also, open your shades to avoid claustrophobia.
• Exercise to elevate mood and reduce anxiety. Adopt a regular sleep and wake cycle and eat healthy meals. Balance responsibilities with leisure. In other words, build a structured routine, as if every day were a regular day in normal times.
• Meditate or try yoga.
• Remind yourself that this pandemic won’t last forever and you will get through it.
• If these suggestions don’t work, talk to your doctor about the possibility of professional counseling.
Now, for Wanderlust in Florida, your wife – in addition to the above tips – can try a number of strategies to maintain her sanity. And yours:
• First and foremost, plan a trip. Forbes Magazine reported that according to a Cornell University study, “The anticipation of a trip can increase your happiness substantially, even more than the anticipation of acquiring something tangible, like a new car.” So if your bride starts planning, she may well feel better right away. Make it a good trip to an interesting place – not just a ride to the local gas station!
• Enjoy the benefits of previous trips: " I encourage people to hold on to aspects of a travel experience or vacation that was pleasurable," said Dr. Tamara McClintock Greenberg, a San Francisco-based clinical psychologist. “For example, if you liked the food in Paris, learn how to cook French food in order to recreate some of the feelings you had while you were on vacation.”
• Go through photos of previous trips to remind yourself of all the positives and lift your mood. This would probably not work with that trip to Phoenix in July when the temperature was 118, though.
• Take virtual trips. Many travel companies, including cruise lines, are offering online tours of various destinations as well as educational videos about history, culture, museums and the like.
• Check in with various attractions, such as zoos and popular vacation cities. Many offer webcams and live feeds. You can tour a national park overseas and do virtual trips – like safaris or mountain trips, or maybe even the Idaho Potato Museum.
Hoping that you can travel and not unravel,