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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.