Why It's Okay to Enjoy Quarantine Sometimes—and How to Stop Feeling Guilty for It
“Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, rest assured you are not alone.”
Four months ago, my days began with a nagging alarm, followed by 30 minutes of dragging myself around the house to get ready, forgetting at least one thing upon leaving my fourth-floor walk-up (but not realizing it until I’m three floors down), and finally, a crowded, 45-minute (on a good day) subway commute.
Now, I wake up without an alarm. I take my time getting ready for the day, enjoying a hot shower, a steaming cup of pour-over coffee, a podcast episode, and a few minutes with my cat (he always wants attention most in the morning) before I sit down at my computer to start my workday.
Then, reality hits. I start skimming headlines, the news of the day weighing down on my already-hunched-over shoulders. Any relaxation or happiness I feel vanishes, immediately replaced by guilt. COVID-19 case numbers are up; death tolls are increasing. BIPOC are facing disproportionately higher rates of not only COVID-19 infections but also severe complications from the virus. Essential workers continue to risk their lives to keep a paycheck, while I laze around in my pajamas and play with my cat between work tasks. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals in hard-hit states are facing unimaginable stress and trauma. Some people don’t have any work or income to count on right now. Others don’t even feel safe—let alone happy—at home.
With so much loss and suffering, how could I dare enjoy anything about this pandemic?
Truth is, there’s no getting around the negatives of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, millions are unemployed, and it’s likely going to take years for the U.S. to bounce back from the economic fallout. Many people are looking at a long, long road of adversity ahead.
And yet, there are silver linings to be found in this dumpster fire of a situation. Emerging research suggests people are not only practicing self-care more regularly because of the pandemic, but also gratitude. In a recent survey by mental wellness platform Modern Health, more than 700 adults aged 21-65 were asked about the impact of COVID-19 on their mental health, relationships, finances, and work. As expected, roughly half reported feeling more stress and anxiety during COVID-19 than at any other time in their life, particularly as it relates to their career, income, and health. However, the survey also found that 75 percent of respondents reported feeling more grateful for their health, relationships, and life that they’ve built—an “upward trend” seen across all ages and ethnicities, according to the survey. (See: How Quarantine Can Potentially Impact Your Mental Health—for the Better)
“While this is an incredibly difficult time for so many people, I think the important thing to really take away from this is that when we are going through difficult times, it also forces us to think more broadly about our life, about what we care about,” says Myra Altman, Ph.D., vice president of clinical care at Modern Health. “So if we have the privilege of being able to do that, I think we can use the opportunity to reflect on our lives more broadly.”
Plus, negative emotions simply aren't sustainable. We're not meant to feel them 100 percent of the time. "When we focus on the negatives, we're constantly on alert looking for other negatives in the world to reinforce what we already feel: stress, anxiety, depression, loneliness, isolation (I could go on!)," says Souzan Swift, Psy.D., a psychologist at telehealth platform Heal. "When we look for and focus on the negative aspects, we have more negative feelings and respond to situations negatively, such as isolating, not exercising, lashing out at others, and for some, drug and alcohol abuse. With that said, it's important to find the positive aspects of this pandemic to decrease our tendency to focus on the negatives to help improve our overall well-being."
Of course, this doesn’t mean sensitivity to others’ suffering just goes out the window, notes Altman. “We [shouldn’t be] saying, ‘Well, everything is great for me!’ in response to [someone’s] pain,” she says. Moreover, if you, or even someone you know, simply aren’t in a place where reflection and gratitude feel possible, that’s also okay, she adds. “This is an incredibly stressful time, and how you are feeling is understandable,” she says.
But what do you do when positive reflection and gratitude are immediately followed by waves of guilt?
First, ask yourself where the guilt is coming from. Presumably, it’s not because you actually did anything to cause suffering to others. More likely, the guilt probably stems from a desire to empathize with people’s adversity, to help them in some way—which is a good thing. But when you’re paralyzed with guilt, you’re not helpful to anyone, not even yourself, says Linda Snell, L.C.S.W., M.F.P., a therapist at New Method Wellness, an addiction treatment center in California.
“The problem with guilt is that it’s often counterproductive,” explains Snell. “Guilt can cause us to feel anxious, overwhelmed, and stuck.”
Gratitude, on the other hand, can be a motivating feeling, says Snell. “The world needs resilient, grateful individuals who can experience positive growth from adversity to assist those individuals who are less resilient and help them keep calm and rebuild,” she explains. “Let your gratitude be a motivator for supporting others who might be having a harder time, or living a life of meaning, as opposed to shame and guilt making you shrink away.” (Related: 5 Ways You're Practicing Gratitude Wrong)
The key to reconciling guilt and gratitude is to be open to experiencing both of these emotions (and, really, everything in between), notes Snell. “Accept and allow the feelings that surface,” she says. “Take time to process the guilt, uncertainty, fear, loss, resentment, or shame.”
Similarly, accept the fact that there are going to be high and low moments throughout this pandemic, adds Suzy Fauria, L.M.S.W., a child therapist and educational consultant. “The only thing we can count on right now is emotional dysregulation,” she explains. “We can feel productive or hopeful one day and full of dread and shame the next. Rather than feeling shame about shame [and thus creating a never-ending cycle], we can learn to accept our emotions as they come.” (Need a way to express what you're feeling? Here's how a worry journal could make your life better.)
A lot of this boils down to acknowledging what you can and can’t control in life, says Swift. “Gratitude has the ability to turn your focus away from what is beyond your control and instead turn your attention to what is in your control,” adds Snell.
One thing you can control? Your thoughts, and the emotions that follow. “Challenge guilty, shameful thoughts with more realistic, positive ones,” says Swift. “Reflect on what you have and those positive moments without judgment,” she says.
For example, if you’re feeling guilty that you’re still able to work when others aren’t, try shifting your thought process from unhelpful thoughts (“What did I do to deserve this?” or “I shouldn’t be able to work while others are having a hard time getting by”) to a more grateful thought (“I feel lucky I am still able to work during this quarantine”), explains Swift. “When we are able to focus on our gratitude without judgment, it feels better and is more helpful,” she adds.
Another thing you can control: your response to situations, including the current pandemic. “We can control our actions and [fulfill] our personal responsibility in this pandemic by maintaining our social distance, cleanliness, wearing a mask when out in the community, which all help decrease the chance of spreading the virus (even just a little) and getting back to ‘normal,’” explains Swift.
If you want to take it a step further, channel your gratitude into something truly actionable. Consider supporting essential workers (healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, the people who deliver your mail) by sending them lunch, a small treat, or even thank-you cards, suggests Swift. “Small acts of kindness can help us to feel less guilty and part of the community,” she explains. (Related: How Your Favorite Workout Brands Are Helping the Fitness Industry Survive the Coronavirus Pandemic)
Plus, volunteering and being of service to others may inherently be selfless acts, but they actually enhance your feelings of self-worth, adds Snell. In other words, it’s a win-win for everyone.
“Finding ways to volunteer and give back, whether that’s on an individual level (bringing an at-risk neighbor groceries) or at a macro level (activism, donations, etc.) is a great idea,” adds Altman. “Be sure to connect with local community organizations who really understand the needs of the people on the ground and where your input can be most helpful.” (Related: This Anti-Racism Virtual Bake Sale Already Has Over 2,400 Members Around the Globe—Here's How to Join)
Another way to give back amid the pandemic: mindful purchases from small businesses that may be struggling as a result of COVID-19. Whether you're treating yourself to some new goodies from your favorite Etsy shop or joining donation-based workout classes, use your spending power to help those who could use a hand right now.
Remember: It’s okay to ask for help.
Reflecting on your own complex range of emotions—not to mention learning to live with those emotions—is hard. But it’s also necessary. “Keep in mind, individuals that are able to accept their ability to stay positive and see the pandemic as an opportunity are key to keeping everyone else who is struggling balanced,” explains Snell.
That doesn’t mean you have to go at it alone, though. “If these feelings are overwhelming or do not begin to get more manageable over time, it is important for an individual to seek counseling and/or support,” says Snell. “Talking to a mental health professional about your feelings is helpful because you can learn some practical skills for emotional regulation so that you don't become paralyzed with guilt.” (Here's how to find the best therapist for you.)
It might also help to simply share what you’re going through with other people in your community. “You may wish to educate people about your experience with overcoming guilt and start a discussion group or a book club with readings on the topic of overcoming adversity or the negative impact of guilt,” suggests Snell. “A healthy way to channel negative feelings is to connect with others through a community group or support group or an online coping skills group.”
Regardless of how you channel these emotions, Snell says you can be certain of one thing: “Whatever you are feeling or experiencing, rest assured you are not alone.”