Karl Jaspers, the German psychiatrist and philosopher, once wrote that "humans become aware of themselves in boundary situations".
Given the present pandemic, the spatial and temporal restrictions placed on us will have an enormous effect on our psyche. Being restricted in the freedom of movement, plus having the perception that our limited time on earth is just ticking away, will have a massive psychological impact.
To contain the spread of the coronavirus, many countries have shut workplaces, schools and places of entertainment, confining millions to their home. This has affected many people, giving rise to the "cabin fever syndrome". When stuck indoors, some people become what has been called "stir crazy".
The "cabin fever syndrome" can be described as a claustrophobic irritability or restlessness which we may experience when stuck in a confined indoor space for long periods of time. Of course, the informal name of cabin fever may have originated in the olden days in North America when settlers would be confined to their log cabins during the long winters.
Although it is not an official syndrome - it is not listed among the list of psychiatric disorders - the social distancing and isolation designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus can pose a serious threat to our general state of well-being.
After all, taking an evolutionary point of view, we can list as one of Homo sapiens' major existential needs: the need to belong. All of us are foremost social animals. From palaeolithic times onwards, we require regular contact and cooperation with other individuals for the purpose of survival.
If that's not the case, isolation will negatively affect our mind and body, as many astronauts and polar station explorers can testify. For example, numerous studies have shown that polar research crews, due to the extreme conditions they work under, can suffer from reductions in their immune system. Social isolation contributes to a sense of loneliness, a fear of others, concerns that can have a negative impact on our self-esteem, creating problems in living.
Of course, personality factors, cultural factors and economic conditions will affect how social isolation will be managed. In particular, how restrictions in movement will be experienced varies depending very much on our personality.
Certain types of people will find self-isolating more difficult than others. As is to be expected, extroverts will have a more difficult time adjusting to social isolation. They may not be used to being at home. In contrast, introverts may have a much easier time.
Typically, the "cabin fever syndrome" symptoms (showing similarities to Seasonal Affective Disorder and claustrophobia) involve a range of distress signals such as restlessness, irritability, impatience, feelings of lethargy, difficulties concentrating, low motivation, food cravings (gaining weight) and sleep disorders (difficulties to fall asleep or sleeping too much).
In particular, the corresponding sense of helplessness and hopelessness correlates with a high risk for depression and other mental health conditions, possibly even suicide. In some instances, being subjected to forced isolation - exacerbated by anger and confusion - can also contribute to greater alcohol/ drug consumption and domestic violence.
Furthermore, financial concerns about our ability to make a living in the future, combined with the deadly nature of the coronavirus - a pandemic of which there seems yet to be no end in sight - creates a very volatile, deadly mix. Naturally, all these factors will greatly affect our state of well-being.
Ways of coping
You're certainly not alone if you're beginning to feel the pressure of being cooped up at home. If you think the present situation is affecting your general state of well-being - feeling that the "cabin fever syndrome" is setting in - the obvious question is, what can you do to cope? How can you deal with the mental anguish that you may be experiencing?
Here, I have a few suggestions:
MAINTAIN SOCIAL CONTACTS
Now more than ever - given your social isolation - stay in contact with your social network. Even though you may be physically distant, technology allows many virtual ways to nurture a sense of connection. Pick up the phone, get on Skype, Zoom, Facetime, WhatsApp, or connect with people through Facebook, Instagram or twitter. Schedule regular video chats with colleagues during working hours.
In some instances, you will be self-isolating with a small group of people, whether family or friends. Although this may appear to prevent loneliness, it presents other challenges, namely the possibility of conflict. Even the people you feel very close to may get on your nerves when you're stuck together for a long period of time.
For the sake of your mental health, it is important to find the proper balance between spending time together and taking some "alone time" in your own space.
Respect one another's routine, needs and boundaries. What is helpful (if at all possible) is to have separate work areas, so that you don't interfere with one another's activities.
Generally, however, being around other people, even interacting with animals, like pets, will lessen your feelings of isolation.
SPEND TIME OUTSIDE
When possible, make an effort daily to leave the place you are living in. Being in natural light is good for you. It helps regulate your body's biorhythm.
Outdoors if possible, indoors if not. It is one of the most powerful anti-depressants. Exercise helps release endorphins, making you feel better. Regular physical activity helps burn off extra energy you have from being cooped up indoors.
STRUCTURE YOUR DAY
Maintain a set schedule for mealtimes and a set bedtime. Routines can have a great comforting value. Planning out activities and setting goals can also help to keep you motivated and not feeling down
MAINTAIN YOUR NORMAL EATING PATTERNS
As far as your eating habits are concerned, do not "regress" in either overindulging in junk food or to forget to eat at all. Monitor eating habits to ensure that you maintain the proper balance of nutrition. Eating in a healthy way can increase our energy levels and motivation.
Set achievable goals of what you would like to get done while cooped up and create a timeline to achieve them. Focus on things that give you a sense of mastery and energy. The goals you set can be work-related ones, or more tangential ones such as gardening, cleaning the house, or doing household repairs. And don't forget to reward yourself when a goal is met.
If you have a talent for creative pursuits like music, art or writing, this is a good time to develop them. Such activities can have a strong stress-reducing effect. Find new books to read. Reading can be a great mind-enhancing activity. Stimulating your mind can help keep you moving forward and reduce feelings of isolation and helplessness.
ENGAGE IN ALTRUISTIC ACTIVITIES
Do something helpful for others. Engage in activities that spread joy and give you something meaningful to do with your time. Altruism is good for you. As has been repeatedly shown, it has a mind-uplifting effect.
Express your appreciation to people for things they have done to you. It makes them feel better - and makes you feel better.
SPEND TIME ON SELF-REFLECTION
See social isolation as an opportunity to learn more about yourself - to engage in an inner journey.
You can do this by starting a diary. Journalling allows you to express overwhelming emotions and observe your thought patterns, to prioritise problems, fears and concerns. You can practise positive self-talk and identify negative thoughts and behaviours. This builds self-awareness, creating links with your inner and outer world.
Have meaningful conversations, in particular with close family members and friends.
Practise meditation and mindfulness. These are great ways of focusing inwards to increase calmness, concentration and emotional balance.
VISUALISE FUTURE ACTIVITIES
The forced social distancing is a great opportunity to do some preparatory work on your bucket list - to make some plans, both for trips and other pleasurable activities
Generally speaking, if these activities don't give you sufficient peace of mind - if the "cabin fever syndrome" continues to haunt you; if it has a very negative impact on your mental health - it is advisable to seek professional help - even if it is through virtual means now.
Mental resilience will be important to navigate these difficult times. While it may seem difficult to find mental serenity in the middle of this perfect storm, we need to find the strength to do so.
Our challenge is to be mindful of the pressures that we are experiencing and to find ways to work it through.
And remember, as with previous pandemics, this too will pass.
• Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries is Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at Insead, the global business school.