‘COVID shame’ becomes more common during Omicron’s peak

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Experts say guilt and shame can lead to “double the suffering” for many people diagnosed with COVID-19. d3sign/Getty Images
  • COVID-19 has been heavily stigmatized since the start of the pandemic.
  • Feelings of guilt and shame following a diagnosis of COVID-19 are common, especially since Omicron causes more breakthrough infections in fully vaccinated people.
  • These feelings can exacerbate stress and cause people to further isolate themselves from loved ones.

A COVID-19 infection is stressful enough, but many people experience an added layer of emotional turmoil: feelings of guilt and shame after contracting a virus that has been heavily stigmatized over the past 2 years.

This is especially true now that the highly transmissible variant of Omicron continues to spread in the United States, passed on to people who have been vaccinated, boosted, and have taken all reasonable steps to protect themselves.

But experts point out that contracting SARS-CoV-2 doesn’t mean you’ve done anything “wrong,” and feelings of guilt and shame only add to the suffering.

“Early on, at the start of the pandemic, the motto was ‘stay home,'” said Hillary Ammon, PsyD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine.

“We were told to mitigate the risk as much as possible by decreasing contact with those who are not part of your household. Therefore, when people saw other people traveling or attending concerts, opinions were formed, such as “they are not paying attention” and “they are contributing to the spread of the virus”.

This pattern of thinking has persisted even as the nature of the pandemic has evolved over the past 2 years with the introduction of vaccines and the emergence of variants that can evade those vaccines.

While scientists are still working to better understand how Omicron spreads and how well available vaccines and drugs work against it, what is known is that cases among fully vaccinated people are becoming more more frequent. the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says these breakthrough infections are “probable”.

“It’s automatically assumed that someone was reckless and violating COVID protocols or CDC guidelines,” said Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. “That may have been true for some but not for all.”

Plus, those guidelines keep changing and can be difficult to follow, so “someone could do everything ‘right’ and still get COVID,” Gallagher said.

Mental health experts say feelings of guilt and shame are perpetuated by the societal stigma attached to a diagnosis of COVID-19.

“First of all, it’s important to understand the difference between these two feelings,” Ammon said. “Guilt is believing that you have done something wrong. Shame is felt when you fear that others will judge or reject you because of your actions.

When a person becomes infected with SARS-CoV-2, they may experience feelings of guilt related to their choices.

“They may ask themselves, ‘Why did I visit others in their homes?’ or “Why did I say I was comfortable with not everyone wearing a mask?” Ammon said. “Additionally, they may experience feelings of guilt related to the possibility of infecting other people, whether loved ones, colleagues or strangers.”

People may also worry if others judge them for not being careful enough, leading to feelings of shame.

The guilt and shame after a COVID-19 diagnosis exacerbates the pain and stress a person is already going through because of the disease.

“It’s really like an injury slur,” Gallagher said. “You may feel physically ill and, on top of that, emotionally charged. It’s double the pain.

Although COVID-19 means you need to physically isolate yourself from others, these difficult feelings can also cause people to become more socially isolated and not talk with others about their diagnosis.

“Loneliness and lack of socialization are obvious concerns related to isolation,” Ammon said. “We know that both of these factors can have a negative impact on mental health.

“Also, if they don’t discuss their diagnosis or well-being with anyone,” she continued, “they may lean more into their thoughts of guilt and shame, ‘J ‘have been negligent’ or ‘I’m a bad person for putting others at risk.

Hiding a diagnosis of COVID-19 from loved ones can also be dangerous to an individual’s physical health.

“It’s important for people to stay in touch with others while they’re sick, especially if they start to notice their symptoms getting worse,” Ammon said.

Finally, guilt or shame should never prevent you from disclosing a diagnosis of COVID-19 to your close contacts for possible exposure.

“By being open and honest about his diagnosis, you can help slow the spread,” Ammon said.

Gallagher and Ammon work with their patients to overcome difficult feelings of guilt and shame following a diagnosis of COVID-19.

“I like to tell the clients I work with that they made the best decision possible with the information they had at the time,” Ammon said. “Additionally, remind them that their risk and safety calculations are personal and unique to their life circumstances.”

Gallagher emphasizes self-compassion.

“Even if you’ve done something you regret, face it, apologize if you need to, and work on forgiving yourself, and remember that we all make mistakes, and that doesn’t make us ‘bad people,'” she said.

“Talk to yourself like you would talk to someone you love and give yourself this advice,” she continued. “We are much kinder to others than to ourselves.”

Finally, Ammon works with his patients to assess what is fact versus thought.

“Due to the Omicron variant, COVID-19 is currently highly transmissible,” she said. “Sometimes it can be helpful to review the data with clients so they don’t feel too ashamed of their diagnosis or their choices.”

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