Like wearing florals for spring, feeling anxious right now isn’t exactly groundbreaking. People all over the world are getting sick, losing their jobs and worried about their loved ones. It’s an unprecedented global pandemic, and it’s completely natural to feel uncertain, out of sorts or freaked out. But what about feeling crushing guilt because you’re feeling anxious.
Now, anxiety and guilt are nothing new to me. As a first-born, double Virgo who was raised Catholic, guilt is in my blood. And I’ve dealt with anxiety for as long as I can remember, and usually keep it at bay with therapy and medication.
But this is something new. It’s different from guilt-spiraling, where you feel shame about binge-watching Too Hot to Handle while your friends in healthcare risk their safety every day. This is feeling shame for your feelings, and discounting your own thoughts and anxieties. It’s feeling bad for feeling bad. And it’s a bit harder to remedy than other types of guilt. For example, if you feel guilty for forgetting your friend’s birthday, you can apologize and send her a nice note or gift. If you feel guilty for being able to stay home while nurses are on the frontlines, you could donate meals to your local hospital. The issue with anxiety guilt is that you’re not guilty about something you’re doing (or not doing); you’re guilty for an inactionable feeling.
Anxiety guilt can take many forms, but this is what it sounds like to me: You have no right to be scared right now. How can you be anxious out when you're healthy and you still have a job? Why can’t you handle this stress better? You’re selfish. Basically, it sucks.
I’m certainly not saying I want to live a guilt-free life. Like most things, guilt can be beneficial in moderation. It holds us accountable and gets us to regret our wrongdoings. It becomes toxic, though, when it’s caused by things that shouldn’t make us guilty. According to psychologist Maryanne Fisher, “Although guilt makes us feel awful—I've yet to meet anyone who really loves to feel guilty—it has a very important role in our lives. We are a social species, and an emotion that causes us to recognize our actions as hurting others is beneficial.” In the case of anxiety guilt, our actions (emotions, in this case) aren’t hurting others; they’re hurting ourselves.
While I’m not a mental health professional, I am very well-versed in feeling anxious and feeling guilty about feeling anxious, so here’s how I’m trying to quiet the voice in my head right that’s telling me I have no right to be scared.
1. I’m validating my feelings
Something I’ve worked on a lot with my beloved therapist is acceptance. Not only acceptance of myself, but acceptance of my thoughts and my anxieties. Now more than ever I’m taking her advice to heart and trying to gently force myself to believe that my anxieties and stress are valid, normal and OK. Whenever I start to get down on myself about being anxious about the state of the world because I “don’t deserve” to be anxious about the state of the world, I remind myself that my feelings are legitimate, and not something to be ashamed of or beat myself up over.
2. I’m trying to be kinder to myself
I recently wrote a story about how to stay healthy while cooped up inside. I asked a nutritionist for her tips and expected her to focus on buying whole foods and limiting distractibaking. Instead, one of her biggest points was about self-love. She told me, “You have enough stress on your plate with the virus going around, be nice to your strongest asset—your physical form.” And while she was talking about how we treat our bodies from a nutrition standpoint, her suggestion is more universal than that. I’m forcing myself to recognize that this is a crazy-stressful time for everyone, and I’m making a concerted effort to cut myself some slack. Something we should all be doing right now.
3. I'm staying busy with mindless tasks and entertainment
The less time I spend in my own mind, the less anxiety (and subsequent guilt) I feel. Lest you think I'm biding my time with productive pursuits, I've really found it helpful to lean into totally mindless activities like doodling or drawing in coloring books, and watching TV shows and movies that require less than zero brainpower. A few recent favorites are the aforementioned Too Hot to Handle, a Netflix rom-com called Love Wedding Repeat and Bravo's Below Deck Sailing Yacht. If you're a book person, I also loved Chelsea Bieker's new novel Godshot, which isn't a light read, but is fabulous nonetheless. You know, in case you want to take those suggestions, too.