Pandemic Guilt: Here’s How To Cope With It

If you feel like you’re going through a pandemic guilt, this article is for you!

The pandemic has upended and taken a heavy toll on our mental lives. It’s true that the whole world is struggling. There are some people who have been hit harder than others. Of course, you can’t measure suffering using normative standards or yardsticks. Certain sections of society like frontline workers and those with financial hardships have hardly felt ‘normal’. The same applies to daily wage earners who get through the day painstakingly, having lost hopes of making their ends meet. There’s also the unparalleled emotional distress that a person goes through. They may have lost a loved one succumbing to the virus or is grappling with the disease themselves. 

You see them floundering while we sit within the confines of your home. We complain about the struggles of e-learning/work-from-home. We crib about not stepping beyond the front door or hanging out with friends. And there are several others watching all this unfold from a comfortable distance in countries that have managed to flatten the curve.

In few people, this kind of incessant exposure to worldly suffering can trigger a complex emotion known as pandemic guilt. 

Survivor’s guilt is emotional distress that people wallow in after surviving a traumatic event. It is a mental condition that makes one think that they are at fault for coming out of trauma quite or completely unscathed. Those who have read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak would understand this. Max and Liesel battled with survivor guilt after making it through WW1 while many of their dear ones did not. When fine-tuned to suit the current context of the widespread coronavirus infections, this remorse is what we call pandemic guilt. It is a debilitating self-conscious emotion that stems out of feelings of “being safe” or “not being impacted enough”. 

Pandemic guilt manifests in people when they:

  • A) ruminate on their chances of spreading disease
  • B) feel responsible for the death of someone
  • C) feel that they are not doing enough to help those bearing the brunt of the suffering

The guilt could also arise in situations that are a by-product of their privilege. For example:

  • having a secure job when a friend has been hit by a lay-off
  • sharing a piece of their success story on social media when so many out there are miserable.

How many of you have skipped posting your small wins on social media because of a sudden pang of guilt? It is in such contexts that the paradox of privilege plays havoc with one’s thought process. It makes you mull over your everyday actions and decisions that may affect your dear ones in anguish out there. 

Is it normal to experience pandemic guilt? Well, I would say, to some extent it is absolutely normal. The fact that such an emotion sprouts up in us shows our innate instincts for being compassionate and empathetic towards our fellow beings. But beyond a level, this sort of guilt over an extended period is irrational. It has the capacity to jeopardise one’s mental health and increase the likelihood of depression, anxiety or PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Now, let’s talk about some of the ways to tackle these feelings:

Acknowledge the grief

It is important that you acknowledge the grief without giving it an opportunity to turn into guilt. Before you find yourself having obsessive thoughts, high levels of irritability or major sleep disruptions, try saying “It’s terrible that they have been tested positive” and not “What if I was a virus carrier?” The second thought has the potential of creating guilt waves. It will lead to a downward spiral of negative and self-accusing thoughts. 

Redirect the Pandemic guilt

One of the ways of coping with this guilt is to redirect it to something positive. Your privilege is your shield, but feeling guilty is not going to do any good to you or to others. Try releasing your guilt by penning a gratitude journal and listing out things you are thankful for. This will help transform guilt into gratitude and appreciate the things you have. Nurture this ability to appreciate things. Reflect on them. It can give you a sense of clarity on the positive deeds you can do for those in need.

Turn Off the News 

We are living in a world of overconsumption of news and social media. All of us are mentally worn out with all the negativity looming around. The world is not going to end if you don’t immerse yourself in the latest disaster story. On the contrary, a short news/social media detox may keep the feelings of pandemic guilt at bay. And in case you cannot get yourself off social media, spare yourself all that scrolling you indulge in till midnight.  

Self-compassionate Talks helps Overcome Pandemic Guilt

Your inner voice matters more than anything else during this period. The tone and the words you use to talk to yourself makes all the difference. Your psychological well-being depends on that. Is your inner voice always critical? Is it constantly taking you on a guilt trip for someone else’s trauma? Then you would have to stop criticising yourself for the pain someone else is going through. Talk to yourself in the same compassionate way you would talk to that someone else. 

Choose your Support System

Sure, it always helps to share your feelings with your closest circle. But make sure that the people you have chosen as your support system are not negative or fragile. It should not be that talking to these people ends up making you feel guiltier. They should amplify your ability to cope with guilt and other associated negative emotions. 

Stop Trivialising your Problems

Everyone is going through their own struggle in life. Comparing your struggle with someone who has gone through much worse doesn’t make your problems any less genuine. Sure, the person who had a recent pandemic related career setback is going through major turmoil. But your sorrow of being away from your family during this pandemic is just as concerning. The veracity of your pain is valid. You may come across a range of stories of people who have experienced extreme trauma during these difficult times. But make sure you do not compare your struggles with theirs or leave your own unacknowledged.

Additionally, practising self-care and doing things that you genuinely love will keep your spirit uplifted and help you remain positive. It could be something as simple as watching an old comedy to learning a language you always wanted to.

What one needs to understand is that it is absolutely okay to feel okay during a pandemic.   

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