What is Cabin Fever?

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  • Written By: O. Wallace
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Cabin fever, while not an actual disease as the name suggests, is a state of restlessness, depression and irritability brought on by an extended stay in a confined space or a remote, isolated area. The lack of environmental stimulation can have real, tangible side effects that have a detrimental impact on anyone suffering from this problem. There is little documented evidence, but many speculate that those who may already be mentally unbalanced can be dramatically affected.

Historians speculate that the term cabin fever was first used to describe early U.S. settlers who experienced long winters alone in their log cabins, snowed in until the spring thaw. The term is dated to the 19th century by the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms and is first recorded in 1918, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Suffering from this condition is similar to going stir crazy, a term that originates from a mid-19th century slang term, stir, which meant "prison." Stir crazy was typically used to describe the behavior exhibited by inmates in prison suffering from the effects of a long incarceration.


The origins of the term may also date from the time of frequent oceanic crossings, when people endured the long passage across the Atlantic in small, cramped quarters below the deck of a ship. In addition, during outbreaks of disease, people were often confined or quarantined to their homes in the effort to prevent its spread. Restlessness and depression could have surely been a result in either of these situations.

Cabin fever is such a universal affliction that movies and books have dramatized its sometimes horrifying effect on people and their mental state. Stephen King’s The Shining is a good example of how isolation can drive a person mad. The family in the film is holed up in a remote hotel resort, snowed in until spring. Add isolation, lack of entertainment and a supernatural presence, and madness ensues. Other story plots have explored how extended outer space missions can cause similar problems.

In areas of the world where snow piles up all winter long, driving people indoors, cabin fever is a real issue. In addition to long periods of time confined to a small space, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can make the issue worse. Many people suffer from SAD during the winter months, when sunny days are few and far between, and they sink into a very real depression.

Those especially susceptible to this problem are children who are confined to the house during rain or cold weather. Stay-at-home moms also have long bemoaned the isolation they suffer from when confined to the house without adult interaction. Passive entertainment from television and video games may pass the time, but don’t provide the active, interactive entertainment that most people crave.

Reading, board games and card games may help, but getting outdoors and engaging in physical activity may be the only real “cure.” Many people who live in the northern U.S. cross-country ski, snowshoe or snowmobile as outdoor activities. Calling a friend, or simply trying to get a change of scenery, may help as well.


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Post 9

I moved from California to Arkansas. Without going into a lot of personal information, it was not my idea to move here. I ended up getting stuck out here with school for a few years. I never ever imagined that cabin fever exists until living here. It is extremely isolating and I can't wait to move back to a more diverse and stimulating social environment. This is one of the worst places to be alone.

Post 8

I have been living in Maui, Hawaii for 11 years. I haven't been off island for for four and a half years (since my last trip to Thailand/Cambodia). I have island fever. I am posting it here because the symptoms of cabin fever are similar to island fever: restlessness, depression, irritability, and I feel like I am suffering from claustrophobia. All I want to do is move away, but I cannot afford to because I am paying debts that accrued from the recession. Poor me, right? Most people would be ecstatic to be stuck in Maui.

All I want to do is road trip, but here on an island that means driving around and around. Here we have tons of

sun --too much -- and not enough rain, and we are suffering from the VOG coming from the volcano which is pure pollution and poison, and also the cane burning. Granted, I probably am also going through a mid-life crisis as well. I am selling most everything I own and trying to get out of debt so I can begin to save. I want to move to the highlands of Arizona. I cannot afford to leave until I am debt free and have saved enough money for a down payment on a condo.

I am suffering for real, and I have too much stress because of it. I don't think there is anything I can do to make it better. Any advice? --Michelle

Post 7

I suffer from depression which has been enhanced recently as I have been confined to my home for six solid weeks and not permitted to go outside. I live alone.

Being here in Northern Ireland I have not seen the sunshine for the last two months. I could not believe it when the doctor told me I was suffering from "cabin fever" and hence my posting on this site. Strange how the mind works in isolation?

Post 5

i lived in germany and the uk before, but i shifted back to my native India four years ago, one of the main reasons being 'cabin fever' i had. One of the things I had real difficulty with in Europe was the cold, dark and depressing weather in winter from Nov. to March. I would automatically get depressed from so much cold and darkness.

Post 4

Cabin fever can be an especially serious condition in people who live in places where there's not a lot of sunshine in the winter.

I know many people who move to Alaska, northern England or Scandinavia have a really hard time being shut up in their houses all winter, and the lack of sunshine just serves to exacerbate the condition.

Some people try to cope by using sun lamps, but there's not a lot you can do if you can't get outside.

Post 3

Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, many kids get cabin fever on vacation, especially if the weather isn't too good.

Some good tips for staving off cabin fever while on vacation is to make sure you don't spend too much time indoors (sounds obvious, but I know some people who go on vacation and never leave the hotel), and bring things to do if you get rained in.

Card games and board games are always good, as are movies.

Of course, there's not a whole lot you can do if you get rained in for days on end -- just hope that the sun comes out sooner!

Post 2

Whenever I hear this term, I can't help but think of the Muppets Treasure Island song Cabin Fever.

I know that it's a serious disease, and I shouldn't make light, but I just can't keep the song from getting in my head...

Post 1

I recall Cabin Fever as the term used to describe a sudden berserk episode of violence between fur trapper's wintering over in too-small single-room cabins. I do not recall which book mentions this. But there are hints of it in the description of the main entry above. Today it is used to refer to Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD.

I am researching Subliminal Distraction as the cause of these episodes of violence. They occur around the world as Culture Bound Syndromes.

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