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Coronavirus: Cabin fever can lead to rage and anxiety; talking is a de-stressor

The hopelessness and helplessness from the threat of an unstoppable virus may heighten depression and anxiety disorders and cause irritability, insomnia and problems with memory and concentration in healthy people.

Updated: Mar 30, 2020 03:09 IST

By Sanchita Sharma,

Covid-19 update: Adopting to a routine you enjoy helps limit the stress and uncertainty over the new reality. (Satyabrata Tripathy/HT Photo)

A mild young man under 14-days home quarantine after returning from a business trip to Sri Lanka suddenly went berserk on Friday night and within minutes, stripped down, rushed out of his house, and fatally bit an 80-year-old woman in her neck before his family caught up with him.

His family was hard put to explain his bizarre behaviour, which is referred to as “cabin fever” in pop science to explain feelings of isolation, anxiety, helplessness and rage driven by being cooped up in a confined space for several days. The monotony and boredom of being cooped up indoors may heighten personality conflicts or heighten communication issues, say mental health experts.

“Such bizarre incidents are rare, but situations like these can act as triggers for those who are inherently psychotic, but even then there would be indicators, such as heightened irritability or unpredictable behaviour. It is also a stressful time for people on treatment for mental health issues, so the need to have prescription medication cannot be stressed,” said Dr Nimesh Desai, director of the Institute of Human Behavioural and Allied Sciences, Delhi.

The hopelessness and helplessness from the threat of an unstoppable virus may heighten depression and anxiety disorders and cause irritability, insomnia and problems with memory and concentration in healthy people.



“This is the time when people on treatment may relapse, so despite the social disruption, people must seek treatment, and this is where telemedicine plays a huge role,” said Dr Rajesh Sagar, professor, department of psychiatry at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi.

AIIMS began telemedicine services from Saturday, and the ministry of health on Sunday started a toll-free psycho-social-behavioural helpline (08046110007) offering counselling services.

NASA’s research on astronauts, who perform highly stressful jobs in extreme isolation, offer clues to mitigating the effects of isolation and confinement to help astronauts deal with loneliness, helplessness, and separation anxiety is being used to mitigate the stress of the army and navy personnel deployed in high-risk hostile environments, as well for older people with mobility issues who are living alone.

With empirical evidence indicating that the chances of adverse cognitive or behavioural conditions occurring increasing with the length of a mission, astronauts are mentally trained to survive long-duration high-stake missions where they have to interact with small teams in confined spaces. “The feelings of isolation and confinement in a cramped space can worsen over time, so you need to stress the importance of communicating with people you are with and people outside the home. Isolation is just about physical distancing, not social distancing, so you must stay in contact with your social network. Call friends for a chat, connect with people on email, or join group discussions on social media. Talking is a great but unfortunately underrated de-stressor,” said Dr Sagar.

Adopting to a routine you enjoy helps limit the stress and uncertainty over the new reality. “Things are at a standstill, there is uncertainty about what will happen, and we must prepare to adopt a new routine, which includes cutting down on the information overload on social media. Home isolation is a necessity that should be grasped as an opportunity to do the fun things you always wanted to do and the people you wanted to connect with but had no time for because of your busy school or work schedule,” said Dr Sagar.

“Exercise can also help reduce conflict during times of confinement by improving mood and reduce stress, so 30-40 minutes of physical activity in the form of spot jogging, going up and down the stairs, or walking around the house can stop you going stir crazy,” said Dr Samir Parikh, director, mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare. “Since feeling stressed and trapped also increases chances of conflict, we must also consider using conflict-reduction strategies like taking time-outs to prevent arguments from escalating, and detox from news reports that add to anxiety,” said Dr Parikh.

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