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Inside the Outdoors: Cabin fever is real, and curable

Inside the Outdoors columnist Mike Rahn muses on ways to fight cabin fever this time of year

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It should come as no surprise when an everyday wisdom is eventually recognized in science and medicine.

That has often been the path to greater human understanding. A fitting example, here in the depths of a Minnesota winter, is the malady known as cabin fever. The term has been used to describe unpleasant human reactions to too much confinement and isolation, conditions that seem to happen most often in winter.

At one time or another, cabin fever has been blamed for everything from intense boredom, to irritability, restlessness, claustrophobia, over-eating, irrational decision making, substance abuse and depression.

In extreme examples from history — such as fur trappers isolated for months in cabins in the far north — there have even been cases of madness.

Greater confinement and isolation seem to go hand in hand with Minnesota winters, with the months of intense cold, snow and unpleasant weather conditions finding many of us spending much more time indoors.


But there’s another angle, too. In addition to greater isolation, contemporary medical findings tell us that reduced hours of daylight are also part of the equation. Here’s where our colloquial expression cabin fever is overtaken by technical terminology.

Our folksy term has been replaced by the more high-flown “seasonal affective disorder,” or SAD, for our acronym-happy world. Fitting, perhaps, because sadness is one of the more common emotions felt by victims of cabin fever.

There may be differing opinions as to the relative impacts of reduced daylight versus greater winter isolation. But make no mistake, members of the medical community take the daylight element seriously.

They point to winter’s decrease in sunlight as a disruptor of sleep cycles — our circadian rhythm — important to our emotional well-being. When the body’s internal clock is disrupted, it can lead to mild or even significant depression.

Reduced daylight can disrupt the body’s balance of the chemical melatonin, which is important in the regulation of both sleep patterns and mood.

Also important is the brain chemical serotonin, a critical neuro-transmitter. Reduced light levels in winter can reduce serotonin levels, which may also trigger depression. Vitamin D is part of the serotonin production equation. It is found not only in certain foods, but produced when sunlight is absorbed through our skin.

At a time of year when we minimize exposed skin as much as possible to avoid frostbite, this source of serotonin-producing vitamin D is unfortunately reduced.

If you ask a medical professional how to offset the effects of cabin fever, or SAD, their response could vary from basic, common sense “home remedies,” to the clinical.


At the clinical level, there is “light therapy.” This is accomplished by use of a special light box. The patient would sit before this appliance — whose bright light mimics natural light — for an hour or so at the start of the day. Medical professionals believe this can have a positive effect on the brain chemicals that affect mood.

There are also pharmaceutical options, as well as counseling and psychotherapy, in extreme cases.

Fortunately, there are also lifestyle and home remedies that can be availed. Vitamin D supplements could help. Also advised is keeping a consistent pattern of sleeping and waking, and avoiding naps and over-sleeping, which tend to disrupt your body’s internal clock.

One suggestion that may not be obvious is to maximize your exposure to sunlight while indoors. Despite the priority of conserving home or office heat, opening blinds, drapes and shades to allow sunlight to enter a structure can be helpful.

Sit close to bright windows at home or in the office, so you can absorb natural light directly.

Perhaps most obvious to a Minnesotan is to find the resolve to get outside, even if you’re one of those who is not an instinctive lover of winter.

My wife and I try to walk two miles or more each day, with obvious exceptions for the very worst weather. This kind of exercise can not only expose you to the benefits of sunlight — even on cloudy days — but there are other direct physical and mental benefits, like reducing stress and anxiety, obtained from even the simplest exercise if it is done regularly.

You may have an inclination to try, or to rekindle a past interest in, cross country or downhill skiing or snowshoes. And of course Minnesotans who are actively engaged in snowmobiling or ice fishing have a head start toward avoiding the effects of cabin fever.


Beyond the benefits of sunlight exposure, exercise and breaking out of winter isolation, simply having things that you are enthusiastic about and look forward to will have a positive impact on your winter mood and outlook.

If winter outdoor recreations are simply beyond your tolerance, cultivate indoor activities that are meaningful; perhaps something central to your outdoor interests at other seasons.

It could be fishing tackle making, or rod building, refinishing a well-worn and much-loved hunting rifle or shotgun, refurbishing and repainting battered duck or goose decoys from the most recent season, or searching out, acquiring and reading new material on your outdoor passions.

Cabin fever — known now as SAD — is real. But there are simple preventions and cures that most of us can avail ourselves of.

Mike Rahn - Inside the Outdoors.jpg
Mike Rahn, columnist

Opinion by Mike Rahn
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