Pandemic Guilt Is Real—Here's How to Deal With It, According to Psychologists

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In a past life, my preferred coping mechanism for alleviating stress was always retail therapy. But now whenever I catch myself slipping down that superficial slope, I’m crushed by the overwhelming weight of guilt. The problem is that it’s not just shopping that fills me with guilt these days. The heaviest load comes from contributing to the growing statistics of people who fled New York to take shelter with their families elsewhere within a Tri-state suburb. (To me, this difficult choice differs from the vacation-home retreat, but I digress.) 

Before I lost my full-time job due to COVID-19, I felt guilty that I was struggling to maintain productivity because of my anxiety. Then came the guilt of meeting up with childhood friends in our neighborhood to go on social distance walks without the fear of being targeted by biased police officers. Sometimes I feel guilty when I haven’t checked in on people in my chosen community because I’m on the verge of digital burnout from the increased amount of virtual socializing, even if they haven’t responded to my texts. Guilt creeps in whenever I fall off from a fitness routine after consistently following it without fail the week prior—as an able-bodied person in relatively good health, I have no excuse. I also feel guilty that I can’t attend the peaceful protests for social justice or afford to match every donation for the funds that need our support.

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed psychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services, points out that this experience is not an isolated incident. The pandemic has caused an outpouring of feelings related to anxiety, depression, and chronic distress. “I think everyone is feeling this,” she says. “You don’t have to be emotionally sophisticated to feel it. Everyone is feeling the sense of a little survivor’s guilt. So many people have died, so many people have been impacted by it.” 

Back in March, Harvard Business Review suggested that we are also coming to terms with our collective grief. The singer-songwriter Lorde recently brought up the topic in a post on Instagram, stating that “everything about you becomes a grief thing” when you experience loss. In a way, some of us have lost what used to make us feel alive or gave us a meaningful sense of purpose. The loss of stability, comfort, and a sense of “normalcy” is also valid. For far too many others, this virus has taken away the lives of people they loved. Following the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, the Black community is pained with the exhaustion of constantly losing their humanity as well.

Mangda Sengvanhpheng, a certified death doula, end-of-life volunteer, and founder of BACII, believes that the pandemic is compelling us to feel our emotions on a deeper level. For the past seven weeks, BACII has held weekly gatherings online so people have a safe space to share their experiences in relation to coronavirus. “We witnessed these heightened feelings of guilt and grief week after week,” she says. “There was so much uncertainty, fear, and new epiphanies emerging through the conversations we were having.”

Baci is a traditional Lao ceremony used to celebrate important events and occasions, like weddings, funerals, family reunions or departures.

Originating from Laos, modern baci ceremonies are performed at weddings, funerals, family reunions or departures. The tradition is a celebration of life that promotes “true unity, compassion, and connection” as participants send blessings and restore harmony with ourselves, others, and the world. This ritual also serves as a holistic gateway for healing a broken and disconnected society through death by bridging the gap between the living and dying experience. 

“We are a death-phobic, death-avoidant society and the first step to healing our relationship to death is first to be aware of it, to understand our relationship to death, and then to accept it,” Sengvanhpheng says. “To live in a society where we honor and accept death is to be in a society where we fully honor and accept our lives, and in the process we can discover new meaning in our day to day actions and deeper insight into how we really wish to live.”

To live in a society where we honor and accept death is to be in a society where we fully honor and accept our lives, and in the process we can discover new meaning in our day to day actions and deeper insight into how we really wish to live.

For people that have been flying solo in isolation, there’s even more room for self-pitying to shake things up. Dr. Hafeez argues that “it forces you to take stock of your life and see where certain relationships might have gone sour or what decisions you’re making that aren’t serving what you want in life.” She adds, “People are struggling in other ways because they’re having to face head-on a lot of truths about their lives. And it’s not just facing the truth, it’s ‘Oh, I’m going to have to do something about this.’”

Dr. Sheava Zadeh, Ph.D., LEP, BICM, specializes in Applied Behavior Analysis and echoes the same sentiment regarding how guilt is often a reaction to adapting to abrupt changes caused by a traumatic event. In response to the crisis, she has been offering live webinars on Zoom about mental health and wellness in an effort to help employers prioritize the well-being of their staff. 

“We are inundated by countless images and stories on the news [and] social media of our healthcare professionals saving lives, but then there is us having this ‘privilege’ of sheltering in place, within the safety of our home, away from the actual frontlines of the pandemic,” she explains. “Ultimately, we feel as if we could do more, and want to make a contribution or a difference, but don’t know exactly how to go about doing so.”

Not only is the pandemic forcing everyone to reexamine their privilege, but it’s beckoning on people to be more transparent about the advantages that they do have. This specifically applies to those of us that were able to take the necessary safety precautions and have the luxury of being able to quarantine and not go into work. So, what do you do when you feel like you’re part of the problem, but there’s really not much you can actually do to help improve a catastrophic situation that directly impacts you as well? It’s a huge burden to keep buried inside. 

“If you’re bummed about not graduating or walking with your class it’s okay, you’re allowed to feel that,” she says. “As long as you remember the Maslow [hierarchy] of needs, your basic needs are being met, which is why you’re worried about the higher level of needs.” 

woman outside

Dr. Hafeez believes that people are already figuring out how to acclimate to the pandemic because our bodies and minds weren’t designed to function in a constant state of high stress; to do so would be dangerously exhausting. She proposes fighting guilt with gratitude because it provides “a way of keeping things in perspective.” This practice also resonates with Sengvanhpheng, as she “recently discovered how deeply beautiful and life enriching grief can be. She adds, “It’s the ultimate expression of gratitude for our losses.” 

Dr. Zadeh refers to this as an act of self-compassion which has been proven to help people overcome adversity and reduce psychological distress. “Monitor how you are speaking to yourself,” she says. “Are you criticizing yourself and in an abrasive and angry manner? Use supportive words, and words of encouragement, just the way you would do if your close friend was going through a difficult situation.”

In the complicated landscape of social media, messages of hope can get lost in translation. Celebrating anything no matter the occasion feels inappropriate and tasteless when the death toll is rising and the national curve has yet to be flattened. For better or worse, people don’t want to be judged or shamed during a time like this. Enter: that now-familiar feeling of guilt.

“It’s okay to feel a little guilt about this,” Dr. Hafeez says. “There’s also a need to feel normal and as long as you preface something with a little bit of writing, like ‘This is not 99 percent of my day’ or ‘This is one thing that I’m incredibly grateful for,’ I think people get the idea. I do understand posting selfies and happy occasions as if there isn’t a care in the world definitely carries a social stigma with it right now.”

My therapist, Cynthia Santiago-Borbon, reminded me that we are taught guilt as children because it’s a feeling that doesn’t come naturally. When hit with that discomfort, she suggested challenging it by honoring and taking care of yourself. Dr. Zadeh thinks that it’s also important to remember that “you are not responsible for everyone else’s feelings, illness, or discomfort” and those are factors beyond your control. 

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Sengvanhpheng agrees that people shouldn’t punish themselves for being stuck in this unexpected and challenging circumstance, encouraging the internal investigation of any thoughts or feelings that come up. “Guilt, especially guilt that we place on ourselves from events that are out of our control, keeps us in a state that limits us,” she says. “Go towards levity over gravity. Think and do the things that lift you up, not weigh you down.”

Dr. Hafeez recommends following a “very strict personal code of conduct” to help with decreasing anxiety by making you feel more in control. She also supports engaging in safe activities like walks, hikes, or social distance meetings with a small portion of friends in order to buffer our social systems. 

Channeling negative energy into something productive is another effective method for dealing with guilt, as it often gives a greater sense of self-worth and confidence. Dr. Zadeh says that self-care is “fundamental to survival” so people need to make sure that they are getting plenty of rest, consuming nutritious foods, and nourishing their bodies and minds. When you start tingling with guilt, she advises reframing the narrative to “see if there is another way to examine the story you’re telling yourself and create a different one in your mind.”

It’s important to validate the existence of these complicated emotions, but not to prolong suffering in silence with unnecessary dwelling; we have to find mindful approaches to move through the pain. “There’s no shame in seeking help,” Sengvanhpheng adds. “It’s a sign of self-love and betters the world around you.”

The intensity that we are all feeling may eventually decline, but it is ultimately up to the individual to decide how they want to process these inner conflicts in real time. Dr. Hafeez acknowledges that “we as human beings are not designed to bunker down the way we had to,” which is why underlying angst has been bubbling to the surface. “The harder thing now is to do the inner work to come out of this intact,” she says. “That’s a deeper conversation.”

During times of despair or fear that you or a loved one is in danger of harming yourself or others, don’t hesitate to call 911 and seek out professional help.

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255Disaster Distress Helpline: 800-985-5990Text Crisis Hotline: Text the word “HOME” to 741741

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