The Nuance

The Science of Stir Crazy

Why spending time alone drives people nuts

Markham Heid
Elemental
Published in
5 min readJun 20, 2019

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Photo by Alessandro Vallainc on Unsplash

PPeople who have been pent-up indoors with a flu or stranded in a deserted place have an inkling of the restlessness and unease known as “cabin fever,” or “going stir crazy.” Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining had a particularly nasty case — to put it mildly.

While the idea of going truly stir crazy may seem a little dated — like something arctic explorers and wilderness pioneers once grappled with — psychologists who study confinement and social isolation say it may be more relevant today than ever before.

“As a psychiatrist, I’m dealing with the effects of isolation all the time at my practice,” says Dr. Terry Kupers, a faculty member at the Wright Institute in Berkeley who has studied the harms of social isolation and confinement. America’s population is aging. And a lot of older adults, especially retired men who have lost a spouse or partner, find themselves spending most of their time at home alone, Kupers says.

The rise of the freelance economy and telecommuting also means more young people are working on their own, rather than in an office alongside colleagues. “Because of technology, an awful lot of people are working from home, and their connection to society is through a computer,” he says.

While some people do just fine without a lot of social interaction — or at least, they can manage it well in the short-term — Kupers says everyone seems to need at least some face-to-face interpersonal contact. Much of his published work, including his book Solitary, examines prison inmates who are forced to live in solitary confinement. He says “solitary” clearly runs counter to the rehabilitative role U.S. prisons are supposed to play. That’s because spending too much time cooped up and cut off from other people damages a person’s mental and emotional health in predictable ways.

“The first symptom we talk about is anxiety,” he says. “People in isolation have panic attacks, and they feel very anxious.” Self-esteem and mood also tend to dip, he says, and feelings of paranoia and mental instability can increase. While these symptoms are most apparent among people in extreme contexts — prisoners in solitary, but also astronauts on extended…

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Markham Heid
Elemental

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.