On the sixth day, sick of looking at one another and eating canned goods, my family made our first attempt at escape, which would involve coaxing my dad’s midsize sedan up our sloped, frozen driveway. We wanted tacos. Getting them—two days later, when things finally loosened up—cost $400 for the tire we shredded on the ill-fated first try, plus the price of the tacos.
Bad ideas aside, we were lucky: We had food and shelter, and our jobs weren’t in danger because we couldn’t leave the house, which not everyone has in emergency weather situations. But as temperatures across the Midwest drop to a couple dozen degrees below zero this week, millions of people become potential victims of the same phenomenon that inspired three otherwise intelligent people (my mom, the smartest of the bunch, sat out) to flush several hundred dollars down the toilet in the obviously doomed pursuit of carne asada: cabin fever.
Like many psychological phenomena, cabin fever exists in both a cultural and a clinical sense. In regular conversation, the term is something of a catch-all for the boredom and restlessness brought about by being inside for too long. To doctors, cabin fever itself isn’t a diagnosable disorder, but instead the presence of a number of overlapping psychological symptoms that can have real impacts on a person’s behavior and well-being. Usually those symptoms have to hang around longer than the average blizzard or cold spell to start causing real health problems. Still, if you’ve ever snapped at a spouse or felt yourself sinking into depression after a couple of days stuck indoors, you know how quickly they can emerge.
Cabin fever as a specific phenomenon hasn’t been subject to much research, but its elements have been well studied by psychologists. A landmark 1984 study by researchers in Minnesota (where people have some experience with cold weather) found that although “cabin fever” means slightly different things to different people, it’s most often characterized by combinations of boredom, anxiety, irritability, and restlessness. Even for people in places where periods of extreme cold are common, being taken out of your daily routine, cooped up in your house, and significantly restricted in your choices and activities is, in essence, stressful.
How the body reacts to that stress seems to be key to how cabin fever rears its ugly head. In the years since I saw people pulling random sporting goods out of storage in Atlanta, I’ve also watched people ski down New York City’s streets during snowstorms and concoct ill-conceived makeshift transportation devices involving sheets of cardboard, garbage-can lids, and whatever else is lying around. Granted, some people might just find this fun, but many with cabin fever are very intent on getting out. That’s true even when they don’t really need to—we didn’t need those tacos—which may be a form of fight-or-flight instinct, clinically referred to as a cortisol stress response. You can’t exactly throw a punch at Mother Nature, so instead, you might try to escape the conditions that have you climbing the walls.