Managing guilt during the coronavirus pandemic

Posted 26/06/2020

Guilt is an emotion that can be felt from a lot of things and one that is pretty difficult to ignore. It is powerful and a normal human response when in the correct context – but all too often, we feel guilty about things that we shouldn’t feel bad about. Especially in the current situation, it is easy to be caught up in feeling guilty about things, as we are all spending a lot more time with our own thoughts.

Being unproductive and not getting everything done despite not having a full timetable so ‘no excuse not to have got it done’. Feeling sad but then guilty because ‘other people have it worse’. Eating too much or eating when ‘you don’t really need it’. Not doing exercise or not doing as much as other people (cue the constant feed of home workouts making us feel guilty for not deadlifting our kitchen sink). Not being able to help out and feeling pretty redundant being at home whilst seeing so many people continuing to work hard. The list could go on.

Guilt and emotions are situational. If you were one of those people ‘who have it worse’ your brain would still find something to make you feel bad about. So, whilst it is true that many of us are privileged and lucky, we’re still allowed to feel sad or to complain. We are all human and we are all going through a unique situation.

If we didn’t feel at least a little unnerved about everything going on, if we didn’t feel guilty for the loss of lives and hard work of others then we wouldn’t be human. However, we don’t have to feel guilty about things that shouldn’t provoke guilt – our own emotional response, how much we eat, how much exercise we do and whether we gain weight.

Something which has ramped up during the past few weeks is the guilt associated with weight gain. The ‘quarantine 15’, the post-lockdown weight gain memes, the advice on ‘how not to gain weight during the lockdown period’ are everywhere. Weight constantly fluctuates – from hour to hour, day to day, week to week – and that is without the presence of a global pandemic. Our weight changes and it is never always the same and there’s a reason for that.

As a society, we need to stop the illusion that weight gain and eating a little more during this strange period is one of the worst things that could happen to us. Gaining weight doesn’t change your personality, it doesn’t change your friends/family, it doesn’t change who you are or what you can do and quite frankly, the only person bothered about your weight is you (really, it’s true). Writing that down is all well and good but we are constantly being told the opposite and so our brains believe that the opposite is true. But I hope that by reading this, you are reminded and reassured that life is more than a number on the scale.

Social media and diet culture have ingrained the emotion of guilt to food – logging onto Instagram and seeing a post about how bad, naughty or forbidden a meal/snack is inherently creating a negative association to food groups and certain meals. For people with a balanced relationship with food, this is nothing more than a social media post but it is important to remember that everyone can see these posts – people who are fighting through recovery with reduced support, people who are trying to maintain normality and people who may be vulnerable to picking up disordered behaviours and thoughts as a way of seeking control in a pretty uncertain time.

Being confined to our houses and spending more time on our phones, social media has become even more powerful to how it can influence us. For those in eating disorder recovery or with a complicated relationship with food, reading that we shouldn’t be eating this during lockdown, or we should be doing ‘x’ amount of exercise immediately triggers guilt and a spiral of self-destructive thoughts and behaviours.

The ironic thing about labelling food as being ‘good or bad’ in an aim to seek control is that we actually lose control. By telling yourself that you can’t have something or shouldn’t have something, we then want it more and obsess about it more. This doesn’t only apply to food – take the current lockdown situation for example. Before being told we are only allowed to have one piece of outdoor exercise a day, did you wake up and think about going for a walk? Did you feel confined to your house and trapped? Did you feel like you HAD to go outside or anxious about the restriction imposed?

I don’t know what I originally planned this blog post to be about and I suppose that pretty much reflects how busy our minds are and how much there is to think about right now. But I suppose what I wanted to get across is just that – right now, we are constantly in a hyperactive and hyperemotional state even without noticing – just by being awake and aware of the world our minds are racing and trying to work out what on earth is going on. So be kind to yourself and give yourself a break – worrying and feeling guilty about food, exercise and weight gain is not essential and will make an already difficult and anxiety-ridden period worse. 

Contributed by Katie