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Can you be suffering from survivor’s guilt in the middle of the pandemic?

By Leina Rodriguez, LMFT

Yes, it’s quite possible. Most of you have been quarantined for two weeks or more. You are at home. Which you are grateful to have a safe space. You have a job, which you are even more grateful to have. This means you get to pay your rent, your bills, and don’t have to worry about food for the most part. You also have a job that’s non essential and you can work safely in your home so you’re not putting yourself at risk. So you try your best to be productive and not complain. But then the fatigue sets in. Along also comes the lack of motivation. You suddenly find yourself not being as productive as before. Then the guilt sets in. You think “I have a job which many others don’t so I should be grateful and work harder than ever”. 

If you’re like me, then you have read many articles explaining that what your body is experiencing is a trauma response. You’re going through something unprecedented and your brain is having a hard time coping with it and managing it, so you’re body tries to protect you by telling you to slow down which is why you’re tired, even when you haven’t been very active. 

Now, that guilt that you’re feeling that keeps telling you to be productive because you have a job? It’s quite possibly survivor’s guilt. Medical News Today describes survivor’s guilt as when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” You survived a life-threatening situation. You still have a steady source of income. You don’t have to worry about having money for groceries. Your rent will be paid. If you go to the doctors, you may still have insurance. And you also know so many people in your personal life that cannot say the same. You have probably received texts from friends who lost their jobs and now must go on unemployment. You have seen multiple posts on Facebook from others saying that their landlord is telling them they must pay regardless of the pandemic.

One of the most common symptoms for survivor’s guilt is feeling guilt around what they did during the traumatic event and what they didn’t do during that traumatic event. See? So while so many were sick or died due to the virus, you felt guilty about what you did during this time which this can include binge-watching tv, scrolling through Instagram, taking multiple naps and such. While many became suddenly unemployed and worried about a grim future, you felt guilty about what you didn’t do during that traumatic event which could include being not being very productive at work, not using the time to learn a new language, not exercising every day, not cleaning the entire house, etc. Other symptoms include obsessive thoughts about the event, irritability and anger, feelings of helplessness and disconnection, fear and confusion, lack of motivation, problems sleeping, headaches and nausea, among others. 

What can you do about the guilt that you’re experiencing? First start by forgiving yourself. You didn’t cause this. You didn’t anticipate this. And unlike businesses have been saying to many of their employees to keep them motivated, it is NOT business as usual. Some other tips that can help manage this include:

  1. Reach out to friends: another symptom for survivor’s guilt is isolation. The shame may keep you from talking to others. But there’s no reason to be ashamed, so reach out to your loved ones. Have ZOOM happy hours. Play online games. But don’t isolate yourself more than you already are because your world will feel even more closed in. 
  2. Try mindfulness techniques: especially if you’re suffering from panic or anxiety attacks. You can try some breathing techniques, meditation or grounding techniques.
  3. Don’t stop yourself from crying. You’re allowed to feel sad even if you are safe and have so much to be grateful for. The world is hurting. You are afraid. We all are and that’s okay. 
  4. Pick up a hobby online: there are so many offering free classes online. There are also free apps that you can download during this time. 
  5. Self-care: Rewatch Gilmore Girls or The Office for the 14th time. Read that book you have been meaning to read. Check out some new podcasts. Listen to your favorite music album. 
  6. Create a routine: create a routine that includes some movement (exercise, yoga, dancing) and schedule your work hours so you don’t end up working more hours than you would if you were back at the office. 

And more importantly, forgive yourself for not following that routine. Because you ARE going through this. Your feelings and emotions are justified. And if you’re one of the lucky ones that are able to stay home, you are contributing to flattening the curve and that sounds pretty productive to me.