Chances are you’ve spent more time with family or housemates than any time in recent memory. If you have “cabin fever,” the irritability or listlessness from being sequestered with the same people, you’re not alone. We turned to Erica Savino Moffatt, NP, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, to ask for some advice on dealing with the people we’re suddenly around all the time. 

What kind of issues are families and roommates finding themselves in during the quarantine?

There are lots of issues that families and roommates are running into during this period of quarantine, but most stem from spending more time together than anyone is used to. Our typical daily routines are on hold in all areas of life—work, school, going to the gym or socializing with friends— so our usual outlets and distractions from difficult feelings aren’t accessible right now.  

The other thing happening is that given the limitations of the physical spaces we live in, it’s often harder to get away from family and roommates in the ways we’re used to when tensions are high. Couple that with the uncertainty around many facets of COVID-19 plus folks’ anxiety about getting sick, and you have a perfect storm for conflict. Families and roommates sometimes wind up fighting about issues that predate the COVID-19 pandemic (in romantic relationships, financial concerns or intimacy), but also sometimes about new issues which arise because having everyone home at the same time brings them to the forefront (parenting responsibilities and the division of labor, adherence to social distancing guidelines).

If someone has a particularly stressful situation—a bad living situation, such as with a roommate or if they are going through a divorce—how can one manage that?

The first thing to remember is that nearly everybody is anxious at some level right now. That anxiety can make people who are already in vulnerable situations come into more conflict as mentioned before.  

Secondly, learn to draw appropriate boundaries. And, no, we’re not suggesting taping off lines on your floor. Boundaries are emotional markers for where your feelings end and someone else’s begin. It’s standing up for yourself in ways large and small. If you feel you’re in constant conflict with someone you live with, try to think about whether you’re reacting to their feelings. Let them have their feelings, for whatever they are, but don’t feel obligated to absorb them. If their feelings get overwhelming for you, that’s when you know you need to adjust your boundaries a little.  

Particularly important for tense living situations in these odd times is the need for routine, schedule, and engagement in pleasurable activities on your own. If you work to maintain your own happiness to the degree that you can in this time, you’re going to find that you’re less affected by others’ unhappiness and less prone to get into conflict in the first place.

Are there tips you have for dealing with family and housemates?

There are lots of things you can do in general to help you cope. Establish a schedule. Make sure you’re getting out of bed at a pretty normal hour and getting dressed every day. Keep meal times at scheduled times to reduce the amount of snacking you do out of boredom. Schedule times for work (such as cleaning and housework or working from home) and play (relaxing with a book or a movie, doing arts or crafts). 

If you find yourself anxious, limit your media exposure and social media time. It’s easy to think that more information will decrease anxiety, when really it tends to just intensify anxiety. Scrolling the news or social media before bed is one of the things that causes people the most anxiety and insomnia.  

Remember that social distancing doesn’t mean social isolation. You may not be able to get out with friends, but you can use platforms like FaceTime or Zoom to see and talk to friends and family no matter where they live. Try writing letters or a card to someone. Having tangible reminders of someone important to us can be helpful.   

Also, exercise is key. Going out for a walk is a great way to reset yourself if you’re feeling irritable, anxious or unhappy (just keep following those CDC guidelines about wearing a mask in public). If you’re missing your gym or want to get active, there are lots and lots of great, free workout resources online that require no equipment.

All of these things make you less likely to be involved with conflict.

And if conflict does happen, it’s best to try to acknowledge your feelings, try to clear the air and then let the bad feelings go if it doesn’t seem like things can be worked out or solved in a fairly short amount of time. Prolonged arguments tend to leave people feeling frazzled and even more stressed. Focus on managing your own feelings to get back to a better emotional state after conflict happens.

This is an incredibly hard, odd time for all of us. The thing to remember is that it will end someday. We can get through this period of time, however long it lasts, with some good self-care, patience and grace.