How to avoid (or embrace) arctic hysteria during this eternal winter

So it looks like if you live anywhere east of Nevada or north of Texas you will never see the sun again. Since you are now essentially living in the Arctic, you will need to get a new set of skills, especially if you want to avoid what's known as "arctic hysteria."

Arctic Hysteria

It seems that arctic hysteria is what happens to people in the American arctic during long winters. Another name for it is "piblokto" or "pibloktoq," but those two terms have for the most part been dropped. Explorers who first chronicled the madness said that "piblokto" was the local word for the outbursts, but no contemporary scholars can find any word like it, and most agree that it was either misheard or badly transcribed.


The disease is so creepy and dramatic that it's a wonder it hasn't made it to either the big or little screen. According to early sources it started out with soft singing and repeated clapping or striking of the hands to keep a beat. After a while the singing dissolved into crying, which spiraled up into screaming. The person affected tore off their own clothes, smashed everything indoors, and ran screaming into the snow. Eventually most sessions ended with a kind of seizure, followed by a near-catatonic state, after which the person nearly always recovered. If that sounds nice to you, be aware that some cases of arctic hysteria included coprophagia (i.e., poop-eating).

The Physical Causes

There are no recent cases of arctic hysteria, but so much has changed since the early 1800s that it's hard to pin down why. When looking for physical causes, most scientists turn to diet; vitamin C deficiency, vitamin D deficiency and calcium deficiency were tossed around as possible causes. While lack of vitamin C causes muscle spasms, and lack of calcium causes mood swings, neither causes screaming, the tearing of clothes, or running around. One study considered the idea that victims of arctic hysteria might have had an overdose of vitamin A. Liver, a main source of nutrition for those with plenty of meat, but little access to fruits or vegetables over the winter, can contain enough vitamin A to be toxic to humans. But, though an overdose of vitamin A yields a long list of symptoms, most of those symptoms are things like blurred vision, dizziness, and lethargy, which aren't likely to get someone to run around screaming. One symptom is irritability, which if it is meant to refer to the disease, is something of an understatement.


Finally, there is simple hypothermia. Hypothermia makes people irrational. It leads to mood swings and, occasionally, violent behavior. The later stages of hypothermia make victims feel like they are burning with heat, even as they freeze. Many hypothermia victims are found stripped to their underwear, or completely naked. Any time people are exposed to the cold for long periods of time, hypothermia is a possibility.


Just to be safe, keep as warm as you can, eat a lot of produce, but stay away from liver.

The Psychological Causes

If the hysteria is psychological, rather than physical, there are discomfortingly few steps you can take. At first, doctors thought the arctic hysteria episodes were a cultural phenomenon; certainly, they were reactions to stress, but that reaction, just like our reactions, aren't entirely separated from the culture we live in. When explorers in the arctic also fell victim to arctic hysteria, things got more complicated. It's not unheard of for outsiders who have been exposed to a culture for a while to unconsciously adopt that culture's mentality. It does, however, imply that if you want to avoid running out into the snow naked, you would have been better off never reading this article.


One of the most intriguing analysis of the disease might explain why there is no word in any indigenous American language for what seems like a notable phenomenon. Arctic hysteria might not have started happening until enough explorers and Europeans made their way to the arctic and subarctic. Winters are never easy, and arctic hysteria might have been the reaction to a massive shift in circumstances. A culture that needed to marshal much of its resources and knowledge to get through a tough time was seeing those resources stripped away and that knowledge become irrelevant in a changing world. If that's the case, then probably the best way to stop yourself from succumbing to arctic hysteria is to stay away from the news, keep yourself from looking up anything that's trending on twitter, and just keep telling yourself the spring will come.


Images: NOAA Photo Library.

[Via International Medicine, Michigan State University, Pibloktoq (Hysteria) and Inuit Nutrition, Arctic Anthropology]


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