In Depth

Coronavirus: advice on mental health - and practical tips for cabin fever

Drawing up a family contract and earmarking different zones in your home can help with isolation and anxiety

The advice for Brits to remain at home and avoid unnecessary social contact has prompted fears about how the country will cope with being cooped up.

This combined with the potentially stressful daily news agenda could cause mental health issues, as well as having a draining effect on your energy and motivation.

As the number of infections continues to soar, the virus is having a damaging effect on the mental wellbeing of people worldwide, according to experts at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

This has been echoed by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has issued guidelines for protecting mental health during what the UN agency describes as “this time of crisis”.

Here are some of the potential issues that people may face - and advice on how to combat cabin fever.

Worry and stress

Many people are feeling increasing stress as the situation continues to escalate. The WHO this week formally declared a pandemic over Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, and a growing number of governments have introduced lockdown measures.

And as CNet says: “You can hardly be blamed for feeling anxious about the novel coronavirus when news about Covid-19 is as widespread as the disease itself.”

The CDC suggests that people who may be worst affected include those “who have pre-existing mental health conditions including problems with substance use”. Children and “people who are helping with the response to Covid-19, like doctors and other health care providers, or first responders”, may also struggle to cope, says the US public health institute.

The WHO guidelines advise that in order to minimise stress, “avoid watching, reading or listening to news that cause you to feel anxious or distressed” and “seek information updates at specific times during the day once or twice”.

The general public should also refrain from referring to infected people as “Covid-19 cases”, “victims”, “Covid-19 families” or the “diseased”, says the agency, which instead recommends describing them as “people who have Covid-19”, “people who are being treated for Covid-19” or “people who are recovering from Covid-19”.

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Millions of people worldwide have been isolated from the rest of the population in order to stem the spread of the disease.

But as mental health charity Mind notes, “being asked to stay at home or avoid other people” for an indefinite period of time “might feel difficult or stressful”.

The NHS agrees that “self-isolation can be boring or frustrating”, and warns that some people who are quarantined may find their “mood and feelings being affected”. In more severe cases, people may feel low, excessively worried or have problems sleeping.

“There are simple things you can do that may help, such as staying in touch with friends and relatives on the phone or by social media and you may find it helpful to talk to them, if you want to,” the health service says.


For some, the coronavirus outbreak may trigger more severe mental health issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

Vox says that although “many people associate OCD with obsessive cleanliness – a habit that might seem helpful in the midst of an outbreak – the reality is much more complicated”.

Many people with OCD suffer “extreme hypochondria or intrusive thoughts about harm coming to oneself or loved ones”, the news site continues, adding: “The stress of an outbreak can exacerbate those fears, leading to a resulting increase in compulsive behaviour, like time-consuming rituals that disrupt one’s life, or extreme self-isolation.”

The Washington Post suggests that for sufferers of OCD and other anxiety-related disorders the following steps could help cope with the coronavirus outbreak: 

  • maintain your routines as much as possible
  • avoid crowds, but don’t isolate yourself
  • sleep, to protect and strengthen your immune system
  • eat healthy food and avoid junk
  • don’t drink too much alcohol or coffee
  • try to get regular exercise
Handling cabin fever

In a video for The Guardian, Australian academic and psychologist Lea Waters suggests three tips for avoiding cabin fever.

First, she suggests “drawing up a family contract” in order to reduce potential conflict with the people you are in close quarters with. 

Outline the main challenges you might face and “what the roles are that we expect people to play over the next couple of weeks”, which can help individuals find their place in the group. 

Talking about each others’ strengths, be that patience, forgiveness or being entertaining, can also help avoid disputes later into isolation, Waters says.

Secondly, she suggests sticking to your routine as much as possible, for example still working normal hours or doing a workout. This can be aided by her third tip, creating zones in your home for different activities.

The final point, Waters says, will “reduce that feeling of cabin fever because different areas of the house have different functions”.


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