There are a variety of emotions surrounding COVID-19. From anxiety and anger, to loneliness and frustration, the pandemic and its related consequences have affected how nearly everyone has felt over the past year.
"It seems every aspect of life has been impacted across the spectrum," says Wiara Jackson, LCSW, lead medical social worker at Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center. "Change is challenging enough within itself, but when one's whole way of life is turned upside down, it can be mind-altering."
While there can be comfort in knowing so many others are going through similar challenges, what happens when we're experiencing a feeling only a few might understand, such as COVID-related guilt? This might be guilt about not following COVID-19 prevention protocols or even guilt about spreading the virus to others, possibly leading to severe illness or death.
What leads to COVID-related guilt
Although there is still much to be learned about COVID-19, researchers have determined that approximately half of all cases are spread from people who are asymptomatic, or have not yet begun to show symptoms. Many of those who spread the virus had no idea that they were infected or might have the ability to infect others. However, even if someone unknowingly spreads the virus, they are still likely to have feelings of guilt once the transmission has been determined.
According to Jackson, guilt happens when we do not meet our own moral standards, especially if others are negatively affected by our actions. Guilt can serve as a sort of moral compass, she says, and is an appropriate reaction when we harm someone, even unintentionally.
"The spectrum of guilt can range from simply feeling badly for transmitting COVID-19, to severe moral injury for causing serious illness or death," Jackson says. "However, experiencing feelings of guilt can be an indication that we indeed care and have concern for others."
Coping with the unintentional spread of COVID-19
If someone believes they might have transmitted the virus to others, Jackson says that an important first step is to take responsibility for their actions. She offers people the following steps to cope with feelings of guilt and ensure that their actions aren't repeated:
- Acknowledge to themselves and others that they have harmed someone, even if they did not intend to.
- Communicate directly with anyone they may have been in contact with and explain the possibility that they may have transmitted the virus.
- Be apologetic - sincerity and honesty go a long way.
- Reflect upon their behavior and whether behavioral changes are needed in order to protect others.
- Take action to prevent further spread - isolate themselves from others until they are infection-free and then wear a face mask when leaving home; decline offers to attend parties or gather in groups; make a conscious effort to frequently wash or sanitize hands; and follow all community health orders.
"The very best way to work through feelings of guilt - which often include grief, anger and blame - is to talk about it," Jackson says. "Processing these feelings with a trusted spiritual advisor or professional counselor would be ideal in equipping people with the best coping tools possible, but even confiding in a close friend may be enough to release some of the burden that guilt can cause."
Self-care is essential
Jackson says it's also important to recognize that we are human and give ourselves grace in being allowed missteps, especially considering that they may have been unintentional. She stresses that self-care is essential to recovering from feelings of guilt, which is similar to how one might cope with feelings of fear and stress.
"Self-care is integral in coping with challenging feelings," she says. "Self-care looks different for each person, but it is whatever 'fills your bucket' - taking walks outside, reading, meditating, praying, creating art or watching a favorite movie."
Taking care of basic needs, such as getting enough sleep at night and eating a balanced diet, can also help, Jackson says. "Taking time to recharge your battery will give you the fuel to cope, care for others and continue with your own daily responsibilities."
If, however, feelings of guilt are overwhelming - what Jackson would call "a case of severe moral injury" - seeking the help of a behavioral health professional to work through deeper emotions may be the best route. She encourages people to talk with their primary care doctor about their concerns or reach out directly to a mental health provider.
If you or someone you love is experiencing a serious mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911 if anyone, including yourself, may be at risk for self-harm or suicide.