Guest column: Surviving cabin fever with resiliency

Melissa Cook

I returned home from work tonight, and before making dinner, I opened the freezer, slipped out a half gallon of my favorite ice cream and dished out a small bowl. I stood in front of the heater, savoring every spoonful of peanut butter and chocolate chips while feeling the warmth from the fire on my backside and toes.
I’ve also been dreaming of making homemade macaroni and cheese with a warm batch of homemade bread. I noticed I’m sleeping almost an hour more each night, too. This is not like me. What’s up with that?
Cabin fever. Wintertime blues. Seasonal affect disorder or SAD. How do you know if you are in the grips of cabin fever? Here is a list of the symptoms: Irritability, impatience, anxiety, depression, boredom, restlessness, lack of motivation or desire to do your favorite things, fatigue, feeling alone or hopeless, insomnia, sleeping too many hours, tired, eating too much or not enough and craving high-carb junk food. This explains the ice cream and macaroni.
It’s mid-January and we are in the thick of it. As a University of Wyoming Extension educator specializing in community vitality and health, I have been giving a Winter Survival Skills presentation around the Big Horn Basin. I asked my husband what advice he would offer to fight off cabin fever. He replied, “Know your smart TV. Televisions today are not the same as your TV from twenty years ago. A wealth of content is waiting to be discovered if you know how to run your remote. If you don’t, find someone to teach you. YouTube, which you can watch on a smart TV, offers an array of documentaries, instructional videos and interesting shows.”
Please don’t laugh, but my next suggestion is to reduce screen time by unplugging and engaging with others during your day. Don’t forget about the importance of real-life connections.
Quick tips for resiliency in the face of winter:
• Drink more water and strive to eat healthy
• Stay busy to avoid boredom and unnecessary snacking
• Learn a new hobby, read a book, play a game or put together a puzzle
• Reduce the amount of news you watch
• Stay connected: call to chat or Zoom with friends and family
• Think positive thoughts and refrain from negative ones
• Learn mindfulness techniques and breathing exercises
• Clean and organize the house
• Keep an eye out for and attend community events and activities
• Feed the birds and watch from your window while soaking up vitamin D
• Be active - yoga, exercise, dance, play outside
• Avoid things that make you unhappy
• Avoid temptation by not bringing junk food into the house
• Set up a routine and stick to it
• Bundle up and go for a walk on nice days
Cabin fever affects children, too. I used to advise my daughter-in-law: “Put the best toys in a box and store them until winter and then bring them out when cabin fever begins.” We can do the same for ourselves. No one is immune to cabin fever.
I told my sister, who is displaying symptoms of the wintertime blues in Yuma, Arizona, that I believed she may have cabin fever. She replied, “What’s cabin fever? I haven’t been in any cabins.” Then, we both laughed. In all seriousness, I do think she may have cabin fever. Sometimes, a conversation is all it takes to improve the outlook of another.
Knowledge is power. If we understand why we stop in the kitchen for a mouthful of treats when we are not hungry or know why we snap without cause, we are more likely to control the urges and change our behavior.
If your symptoms are no laughing matter, reach out to a friend, call a local counselor for a chat by phone or Zoom, or if need be, call 988 for crisis intervention. There is no shame in asking for help. Sometimes, all it takes is someone who listens and has the skills to reframe our thoughts or offer tips that make all the difference. As rancher Stan Flitner says, “Cowboy up and talk about it.”
(Melissa L. Cook is a Community Vitality and Health Extension Educator with the University of Wyoming Extension.)