Covid Cabin Fever – effects on mental health

Our psychologist, Alan Hely, shares his thoughts on some recent research related to our mental health during lockdown. Can you relate to this sense of Covid Cabin Fever described below? If so, Alan shares some ideas for how to combat the psychological impacts of being restricted to the same environment each day.

Lockdowns might actually be impacting on our sense of time, as well as our memory.

Interesting research in the complex field of “contextual-binding theory” has shown that our memory and time perception can be negatively impacted by being locked down for extended periods of time in the same environment, such as your home office.

Research has shown less context change, such as the conditions of the current COVID lockdowns, produces a sense that less time has elapsed than actually has, as well as worse memory for our most recent events. Contextual change refers to the cues that our brain uses in both our external environment and internal environment (e.g., our thoughts) to aid memory retention and estimate time.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has created the perfect conditions for these effects, with many of us sitting at our computer in a non-changing and familiar home environment. Normally, we would be working in more stimulating and dynamic environments such as the workplace or a library, or even outdoors.

The resulting “Covid Cabin Fever” is similar to under stimulation, which produces boredom and anxiety, in combination with the stress of not knowing when things will change, or for how long we will be in this situation.

The solution to defeating Covid Cabin Fever is to create change in your home environment and to make it more stimulating. You can do this by using simulation techniques similar to pilot training in cockpit simulators. Here are some ideas on how to do this:

  • Try and align your time schedule at home to the time schedule you had when going into the workplace.
  • If you have the space to do so, create a dedicated home office which has no other function. This way, the environment of your home office will cue you to be focused on work.
  • Try to keep a boundary between work and home-life, even though they are happening in the same space. For example, wait until each morning to read your work emails and then, at your normal work finishing time, turn off the work email and “go home”.
  • Take regular breaks and time out at lunch time, as you would at work. These breaks should involve leaving your desk or whichever space you are doing your work.
  • Get some exercise during the day, which is what you do at work when you walk to the kitchen, bathroom or around the office and when leaving the office at lunchtime.
  • Is your workplace usually a noisy environment, and now you find yourself in a small quiet corner of your home? Try listening to music or the radio. If you find hearing voices to be distracting, try playing classical music, ambient background sounds that are freely available online, or turning the radio down to a low level so you just hear a background hum of noise.
  • Don’t underestimate the impact of nature! Introduce a pot-plant into your working space, or experiment with placing different cuttings of flowers and greenery into a vase each day. This introduces nature into the room, as well as keeps the environment changing and dynamic.
  • Think about all 5 of your sense – what can you introduce into your work space to invigorate your senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste and vision? Experiment with different experiences each day – e.g., a fragrant candle or a pot of brewing coffee, placing a soft blanket over your legs, placing new pictures on the area around your computer screen, etc.
  • Where possible, go outdoors or get some fresh air.

A final and important point is about motivation. Working from home can have all sorts of implications for our motivation. Performance psychology shows us that motivation remains high when major long-term goals are divided into smaller, achievable sub goals. For example, can you complete that big project in five small sections over five days with rest breaks and other contextual changes between them?

Do you have any other creative ways of making your home working environment dynamic and stimulating? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you are finding the lockdown difficult and would like extra support, please reach out to us today so we can discuss your needs and schedule an appointment with one of our psychologists.