Cabin Fever: A Real Illness?

Cabin Fever: A Real Illness?

Recently, a type of emotional condition called Cabin Fever has become known as a side effect of social isolation.

What is Cabin Fever?

Cabin fever is a colloquial term that is currently being used to describe a psychological or emotional situation of discomfort when leaving the place where a person has been held for a long period of time.

This is actually a terminological confusion, as ‘cabin fever’ has traditionally been linked to the feeling of claustrophobia and urgency to leave a confined space within which one is contained, despite knowing the risk of doing so.

The ‘cabin fever’ the media talks about is a “misunderstood term”

Actually, Cabin Fever has been seen before in people who experienced periods of confinement with social isolation (like prisoners) or even in sailors during overseas trips.

Many people have experienced this during the two months of quarantine, and it is now being reflected as an urgency to leave home under the rules imposed (or not) by the government.


Person walking their dog during the quarantine period, one of the activities allowed.

What are the symptoms of Cabin Fever?

The symptoms of Cabin Fever have not been clearly defined, in fact, this is one of the reasons why it is not a condition recognised as a disease.

Among the reports of people who have suffered exposure to stressors and have developed symptoms compatible with this syndrome, common sensations include:

  • Irritability.
  • Mood issues.
  • Boredom.
  • Depression or feeling unsatisfied.
In response to confinement, bad weather (climatic condition), routine, isolation, or lack of stimulation (Rosenblatt et al., 1984).
As we can see, the condition has a vague description of symptoms which combine various emotional disorders worsened through stress.

Bad mood

However, this does not mean that it is not a real condition, as we have indeed been able to see and experience it.

Is it a real illness?


So far, at least, it is not recognised by the ICD-11 (International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision) of the World Health Organisation.

What are we currently facing?

Right now we are faced with a very different picture of Cabin Fever, and it is a specific phobia of exposure to an environment that has a greater potential to expose us to the virus than our home (which, as of yet, does not have a name).

In Spain we have been quarantined for 10 weeks, and in advance of moving to Phase I and II as of recent weeks it is not uncommon to see people experiencing social phobia and anxiety about the possibility of leaving the home.

We do not have epidemiological data yet, but this data will certainly be published in the coming months, and we will see that this is a much more common scenario in elderly people and subjects with hypochondria and OCD traits.

Specific phobia as a result of quarantine

The condition known as “specific phobia”, is categorised within the group 6 of “mental, behavioural and neurodevelopmental disorders” and of the “anxiety or fear-related disorders” subgroup, and it is officially defined here:

“Specific phobia is characterised by marked or excessive anxiety or fear that occurs constantly when exposed to one or more specific objects or situations (e.g. proximity to certain animals, flights, heights, enclosed spaces, seeing blood or wounds) and they are out of proportion to the actual danger.

The object or the phobic situation is avoided or overshadowed with intense fear or anxiety.

Symptoms persist for at least several months and are severe enough to cause significant discomfort or deterioration in personal, family, social, educational, work, or other important areas of functioning.”

Fear of going out

Society is currently experiencing a new phobia specific to exposure to an uncontrolled environment..

How do we deal with it?

Given that this scenario is “something new”, we must be cautious when dealing with the situation.

Aggressive exposure of the feared situation or environment to a person who is not prepared to handle the situation psychologically and/or behaviourally can create a post-traumatic stress disorder that makes it even more difficult to approach.

The best way to tackle this situation is:

Avoiding total social exclusion for people who live alone

For example, keeping in contact through video calls.

Confronting fears

Gradual exposure to the stressor

  • Go out on the balcony.
  • Go out to the entrance hall.
  • Go out on the street without moving from the entrance of your apartment block.
  • Go for a walk around the block during hours of minimum traffic.
  • Go out progressively at times of higher traffic density.
Simply expose yourself voluntarily and progressively to a greater emotional challenge, and see that nothing happens whenever you take the usual steps.

Ask for help

Ask your child, your sister, your mother, a friend… to come along with you for a coffee, to sit on a bench, to go to the hairdresser or the supermarket …

Again, undertake a gradual exposure, from less to more.

Exercise regularly

Since this has been associated with better mood and emotional state overall (Schuch et al., 2016).

Social relations

Healthy Diet

You should be eating a balanced and healthy diet, as diets based on ultra-processed foods have been more associated with depressive disorders (Firth et al., 2019).

“However, this is not surprising, because although the primary objectives of dietary interventions varied, the current content of all interventions was generally positioned in certain common aspects such as reducing the intake of “junk food” by replacing it with high fibre and nutrient dense alternatives, as well as with vegetables.”

Professional Help

If these recommendations don’t work, ask for the help of a professional who can evaluate your psychological health under the criteria of a medical diagnosis and subsequently treat you appropriately for your case.

What have we learned from this

The first time they defined “health” in my university degree I was surprised by the description they gave us:

“Health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not just the absence of conditions or diseases”.

The quotation comes from the Premulus of the Constitution of the World Health Organization, adopted by the International Health Conference, held in New York from 19 June to 22 July 1946, signed on 22 July 1946 by representatives of 61 States (Official Records of the World Health Organization, No. 2, p. 100), and entered into force on 7 April 1948.

The definition has not been changed since 1948; as shown on the World Health Organisation’s website.

Personally, each and every aspect of this definition was justifiable, but… social well-being? Does that exist? And if it does exist… is it that important?

I can confirm this right now, without a doubt.

Healthy social relationships play an essential role in maintaining a person’s good health, and they have an influence on behaviour, psychological and physiological variables. The influence is such that poor social health can negatively affect organic systems such as the immune system, cardiovascular system, or the nervous system.

Anyone who is more interested in the topic can check out the Umberson and Karas (2010) review which I will leave in the references section. It is a simple article with free access, reviewing the relationship between social relations and health from the point of view of public health policies.

A meta-analysis that included no less than 148 studies with a total sample of more than 300.000 people from different population groups: Men, women, children, the elderly…

From all parts of the world, it indicates that stronger social ties (support received, perception of loneliness, social relations and integration, isolation…) correlated with a much lower risk of death from any cause.

Mortality rates

The odds ratio of the decrease in mortality in several conditions are associated with this effect.


So, in case you haven’t noticed yet, some of your health and that of your loved ones has to do with the social contact you have between you and with third parties, so:

While respecting safety measures, resuming a pace of life in accordance with a “new normal” is an extremely important factor in improving the health of people around the world.

Bibliography References

  1. Firth, J., Marx, W., Dash, S., Carney, R., Teasdale, S. B., Solmi, M., … Sarris, J. (2019). The Effects of Dietary Improvement on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Psychosomatic Medicine, 81(3), 265–280.
  2. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: A meta-analytic review. PLoS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
  3. Rosenblatt, P. C., Anderson, R. M., & Johnson, P. A. (1984). The meaning of “cabin fever”. Journal of Social Psychology, 123(1), 43–53.
  4. Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 77, 42–51.
  5. Umberson, D., & Karas Montez, J. (2010). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(1_suppl), S54–S66.
  6. World Health Organization. (2018). Clasificación Internacional de Enfermedades, (11ª revisión).

Related Articles

  • We give you remedies to control anxiety during quarantine in this article.
  • 7 Key Tools to Survive Confinement. Visit this link.
Review of Cabin Fever

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Advice to overcome it - 100%

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About Alfredo Valdés
Alfredo Valdés
He is a specialist in metabolic physiopathology training and in the biomolecular effects of food and physical exercise.
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