A still from a musical number called "Cabin Fever" from the film "Muppet Treasure Island." The song is about the crew of a ship who has been stuck at sea for far too long. "We got cabin fever, we've lost what sense we had, we got cabin fever, we're all going mad!"
A still from an episode of the ABC drama "Lost" about the survivors of a plane crash who are stranded on a tropical island. In this episode, titled "Cabin Fever," a cabin was found on the island and mysterious happenings ensued.
Story last updated at 2/25/2009 - 11:48 am
We've all heard the term "cabin fever." While its specific meaning remains vague, it may have something to with a cabin, being stuck inside of it, and perhaps feeling a bit ill or crazy as a result.
Cabin fever is most commonly defined as a term for a claustrophobic response from a person who is isolated or shut in for a long period of time. The term first appeared in history in 1918, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Historians have suggested that it described the madness of sailors who had been a long time at sea or early U.S. settlers who spent long winters inside their log cabins.
What exactly is cabin fever, and is it real? Pop culture has subjectively examined the condition in various films, books, music and more. For a more verifiable opinion, we have consulted a few health professionals in our search for a solid definition of cabin fever.
CABIN FEVER IN POP CULTURE
In 2003, Black Sky Entertainment released a horror film called "Cabin Fever." In the movie, a group of college students rent a cabin in the woods and catch a flesh-eating virus. It includes lots of blood and gore and its characters don't quite live happily ever after.
The 1996 film "Muppet Treasure Island" features a musical number called "Cabin Fever." The song tells about the stir-crazy symptoms that the ship's crew faces after being at sea for far too long.
Stephen King's novel "The Shining" involves a family who become trapped in an isolated hotel during the middle of winter. In the film adaptation of the book, Jack Nicholson plays the father who slips into cabin fever insanity.
"MythBusters," a show on the Discovery Channel, performed an experiment in an attempt to confirm or deny cabin fever as an actual condition. The two subjects were locked in individual cabins surrounded by miles of snow for a few days with no outside contact or means of entertainment. They frequently took cognitive tests to measure mental capacity and saliva tests to measure stress levels. Due to their symptoms of irritability, forgetfulness, restlessness and excessive sleeping, they concluded that cabin fever is a plausible condition.
The name "Cabin Fever" is also shared by several various entities around the country, including a "pickin' party" in Hampton, Va., a bluegrass band in San Francisco and another in Upstate New York, a gift shop in Anchorage, a log furniture store in Kalama, Wash., a music and arts festival in Frederick, Md., a campground and hunt club in Victoria, Ill., a 2002 album by musical trio Rasputina, an episode of the television show "Lost," a quilters guild in Florida and another in Fairbanks, a resort in Eureka Springs, Ark., and a romance novel by Diana Hunter.
So it has prominence in mainstream society, but is cabin fever just a subject for entertainment or is it an illness that we should actually be worried about?
"Cabin fever is something that isn't part of a diagnosable condition," said Sheri Alexander, a licensed clinical social worker in Juneau.
The medical condition most closely related to cabin fever is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Alexander said. It is generally a condition that relates to mood and occurs at a certain time of the year. For most SAD patients, that time of the year is winter and they notice a repeat of their symptoms year after year. There have been rare cases of reverse SAD occurring in the summer for some patients with symptoms of heightened anxiety.
Alexander said the incidence for SAD in Alaska is approximately nine percent of the population, whereas in a sunny place like Florida it is only about 1.5 percent. These incidences range from mild to severe cases.
While residents of the northern latitudes generally suffer from SAD at a higher rate than those near the equator, Icelanders are the exception. A study done in 2000 showed a very low level of seasonal changes in anxiety and depression among Icelanders. It has been suggested that the large amount of fish in their diet may play a part in their low levels of SAD.
Diagnosis and treatment for SAD is administered on an individual basis, but common treatments include light therapy, ionized air administration, counseling, doses of the hormone melatonin and anti-depressant medications.
Alexander recommends that anyone struggling with either mild or severe symptoms of SAD should consult a health professional.
"Sometimes people are experiencing underlying mental health issues relating to a mood disorder which can be exacerbated by other things, winter being one of them," Alexander said.
COURAGE TO SUFFER
"When I think of cabin fever, I think of being antsy, agitated, wanting to move and go somewhere but you can't," said Suzanne Womack Strisik, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
Strisik is also a licensed psychologist and has a private practice in Anchorage. She labeled the most critical thing about SAD as the social disconnection that can result from seasonal depression.
"With winter blues it's really hard to talk to people and connect," Strisik said. "That's cabin fever for sure, not having the energy for meaningful social interaction. Losing touch with a support network is probably one of the hardest things on a depressed person."
Although it isn't fun and isn't necessarily a good thing, disconnect can be part of a healthy rhythm, Strisik said. When levels of motivation are low, the best thing for some people to do is hibernate, as do many of our furry, four-legged neighbors in the forest.
"If you think of (hibernation) in terms of human beings, you might think of SAD as an appropriate response to the decrease in light," Strisik said.
Despite the necessity of extra rest during dark seasons, living in a society that is structured for production doesn't always allow for it. We don't get a lot of support for our own bodies from the culture, Strisik said.
"I think it takes a lot of courage to suffer," Strisik said. "It takes a lot of courage to find ways to feel good enough to keep moving. In the same way, it takes a lot of courage to question the kind of lifestyles that are prescribed for us by virtue of living in a society where productivity is so vital."
Strisik believes there isn't any single solution to the winter blues. She sees it as more of a process. If there were simply a pill to make the suffering disappear, the root of the problem would remain a mystery. She encourages those weary of winter not to forget the value of play, dreaming and rest.
A VITAMIN SOLUTION
"I think SAD can be a real problem for people and I really strongly believe that it's really a vitamin D deficiency," said Dr. Kristin Cox, ND. "It's not something that you have to settle for."
Cox practices naturopathic medicine in Juneau and one of her offerings is affordable vitamin D testing.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that is absorbed through the intestinal tract. It follows the same path of absorption as fat, so any condition that interferes with absorption of fats would also result in poor absorption of the vitamin. It is naturally occurring in certain foods such as fatty fish species, fish liver oil, beef liver and eggs. Many processed dairy products, cereals and breads are fortified with the vitamin.
Human skin is also a breeding ground for vitamin D, but only in the presence of ultraviolet light like sunlight. Naturally, people living in northern latitudes are anything but overwhelmed with sun during the winter months, so vitamin D deficiencies are quite common.
"We're pretty much living in constant deficiency in Alaska," Cox said.
The early symptoms of a vitamin D deficiency are vague, but can include fatigue, various bodily pains, depression or anxiety. But just because a person doesn't have prominent symptoms doesn't mean they aren't deficient. Cox recommends vitamin D testing in all Alaskans because an unnoticed long-term deficiency can lead to more serious conditions such as high blood pressure, decreased thyroid function, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, increased cancer risk, preterm labor in pregnant women and osteoporosis.
Cox believes that there are lots of things people can do to optimize functioning, mood, energy level and outlook on life in winter months. In addition to taking vitamin supplements, she recommends that people remember the basics.
Stay active: Whether it's going to the gym, going dancing or simply taking a walk outside, exercise can be a natural solution to cabin fever for both mind and body.
Sleep just right: Too little or too much sleep can be problematic, especially during times with little sunlight. Pulling the blinds or curtains open when it's time to wake up allows the light to wear off our naturally occurring sleep hormone, melatonin. For those who rise before the sun, setting a light on a timer can make the waking process brighter.
Eat well: Drinking, smoking and eating junk food is tempting in the winter but can cause folks to feel lethargic. A healthy diet that includes plenty of fresh produce is recommended, especially including foods that are in season such as greens, nuts, seeds, roots and tubers. Staying hydrated is also key.
"The basics are things that people start to lose motivation about doing when it's dark and cold all the time, but can still help people feel better," Cox said. "If you feel bad, you don't have to settle for feeling that way."