You deserve to be safe and healthy. Your immunity helps us all.
If you’re anything like me, you may have cycled through what seems like every single emotion at least ten times since the pandemic started. While it’s far from over, there seems to be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel with the rollout of vaccines.
Each state has a different process and plan in place for obtaining a COVID-19 vaccination appointment, or even just finding out your eligibility status. Though the vaccine is becoming more common, only a small percentage of people have received all doses of the vaccine.
If you’ve gotten your vaccine or are eligible to get it, you may feel like you can let out one big yearlong sigh of relief.
With this relief, you may also have feelings of guilt that you’re eligible while someone else is not. It doesn’t matter if you’re eligible because of your age, your BMI, a chronic medical condition, or any other reason. If it’s your turn, it’s your turn.
The COVID-19 vaccine represents freedom and a step toward a return to normalcy for many.
Psychotherapist Akua Boateng, PhD, LPC, explains that after a year of loss, grief, and isolation, having the option to regain some measure of freedom is important. Still, the vaccines may offer another dynamic.
“It could be natural to have guilt over regaining freedom that others are still battling to get. It often aligns with our feelings of empathy, equity, and fairness,” Boateng says.
COVID-19 vaccine guilt is a new phenomenon that has developed among those who have received or who are eligible to receive their vaccination. According to psychotherapist Dr. Annette Nunez, psychologists view this guilt as akin to survivor’s guilt.
“Many people who have received the vaccination have reported a wide range of feelings from excitement to guilt. The feelings of guilt are due to a number of factors such as vaccine shortages, unequal distribution of the vaccines, and different states having different distribution requirements,” says Nunez.
Some people have reported feeling undeserving, especially when others don’t have access or when they’ve known someone who contracted or died from COVID-19. Many are asking, “why me?”
“In addition, feelings of shame and not disclosing they received the vaccination for fear of being judged have proven common,” Nunez says.
While no one loves to feel guilty, guilt is a completely normal human emotion.
According to psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW, guilt can be a sign that you care.
“Guilt is a sign that your behavior is at odds with your moral code. While I don’t think struggling with guilt is ever positive for one’s mental health, it is a sign of compassion,” she says. “Certainly, we don’t want people with guilt to begin experiencing the much more painful emotion of shame, so it’s best to acknowledge it, process the feelings, and let it go.”
Side effects of guilt
Mental health side effects can include:
Other side effects can include:
- loss of appetite
- chest pain due to shallow breathing or rapid heart rate
“Studies have shown that when your body is under stress or anxiety, it releases hormones to the brain which can lead to physical symptoms,” says Nunez. “People who don’t seek professional help [may] turn to alcohol or drugs to help them cope and manage their overwhelming feelings.”
“Unnecessary guilt, guilt that is projected onto us, or guilt that is not ours can be very unhealthy for our minds and bodies,” she says. “Unrelenting guilt can lead to tremendous anxiety, irritability, depression, insomnia, and even paranoia.”
According to Chawla, guilt is usually not the only thing going on.
“Oftentimes the feeling beneath unrelenting guilt is shame. Dealing with shame is a very different neurological process. Guilt arises when we feel we have done something wrong, but shame presents when we believe that we are damaged in some way,” she says. “It’s a huge issue when a person begins to feel ashamed, unworthy, embarrassed, or unloveable.”
When managing guilt, it’s important to keep a few key things in mind.
COVID-19 is unpredictable
While there are individuals who are designated as more at risk, this disease still strikes younger and healthy people, too. Being considered high-risk doesn’t mean you’ll get COVID-19 and being considered low-risk doesn’t mean you won’t.
The vaccine rollout plans are designed based on the best available evidence, but one year isn’t much time for evidence and data to give a clear picture. Everyone, including the scientists developing vaccination criteria, are simply doing the best they can.
You are protecting others, too
No one is selfish in any way for getting the vaccine if they’re eligible. It may feel like you’re doing it for yourself, but you’re doing it for everyone else too.
Herd immunity occurs when 70 to 90 percent of the population is immune, whether that’s through vaccination, natural infection, or preexisting immunity.
“We’re all working together to get as much of the country vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity,” says Neidich. “In general, focusing on your community as a whole rather than letting your brain engage in the mental gymnastics of guilt is key.”
Have compassion for yourself
Finding a way to show yourself compassion is essential. Acknowledge and honor your right to protect your health. “Speak” compassionately to the inner child parts of you where most irrational guilt stems from.
Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach developed the RAIN (recognize, allow, investigate, nurture) meditation method to aid in being mindful of your feelings and thoughts.
An example of this method for COVID-19 vaccine guilt could look like this:
- Recognize. “I’m feeling guilty for getting the vaccine when there are so many others that need it.”
- Allow. Let the guilt exist without immediately pushing it away, even if it feels uncomfortable.
- Investigate. While your thoughts may feel obvious, some intentional investigation may reveal something deeper. Ask yourself things such as Why do I feel this way? and What is the emotion trying to tell me?
- Nurture. Be kind to yourself. “I deserve to be safe and healthy too,” can be a positive affirmation for you.
Confide in someone you trust
If you’re still not able to shake the guilty feelings, Chawla has advice.
“Communicate with others about your feelings. Don’t assume you know how people feel unless you’ve had an open conversation with them about it,” she says. “There should not be any reason to feel guilty if [getting the vaccine] is your decision.”
Nunez offers three tangible tips to help you manage COVID-19 vaccine guilt:
- Shift and reframe. As you begin to have negative thoughts with vaccine guilt, recognize it (even write it down), acknowledge it, and then reframe it. Turn “why me?” into “I am getting the vaccine to help others and I am doing my part to help humanity.”
- Positivity. Leave positive notes throughout your house or program your phone to remind you of something positive about getting the vaccination.
- Seek professional help. If your guilt lasts longer than 2 weeks and is affecting your day-to-day life, seek help from a mental health professional.
You have the right to get your vaccination guilt-free. At the end of the day, you’re protecting yourself and everyone else as well.
Ashley Hubbard is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on sustainability, travel, veganism, mental health, social justice, and more. Passionate about animal rights, sustainable travel, and social impact, she seeks out ethical experiences whether at home or on the road. Visit her website.