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How To Cope With Feelings of Shame Surrounding COVID-19

Someone receiving a COVID-19 exam in their car.

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Key Takeaways

  • A project from Johns Hopkins found one in four Americans associate shame with COVID-19.
  • The shame stops people from seeking diagnoses and treatment and may contribute to the spread of the virus.
  • Experts say being open and honest about COVID-19 can help reduce these feelings.

As COVID-19 outbreaks escalate throughout the nation, one in four Americans associate shame with COVID-19, the National Johns Hopkins University Pandemic Pulse project discovered. The project aims to gauge attitudes around COVID-19 in the U.S.

The survey found that this stigma around COVID-19 often prevented people from seeking medical attention until their symptoms worsened and caused people to be hesitant about notifying others that they had been exposed.

Scientists are still learning more about COVID-19 every day, leading to changes in guidelines and recommendations. COVID-19 prevention methods like wearing masks and social distancing have also been heavily politicized since the beginning of the pandemic. Factors like these may be contributing to confusion and frustration among the public.

What This Means For You

Although access to COVID-19 vaccines is increasing throughout the nation, the pandemic will not end soon. There will still be new cases of COVID-19. Do not blame yourself or others for contracting COVID-19, and instead work on being honest with others during this time.

Why Is Shame Associated With COVID-19?

The Johns Hopkins report found up to 42% of the population agreed with the statement "people who get COVID-19 have behaved irresponsibly."

Feelings of COVID-19 shame varying by region. Compared to people based in the Midwest and West, residents of the Northeast and South more readily agreed with the statements:

  • I would be ashamed if a member of my family got COVID-19
  • People who got COVID-19 have behaved irresponsibly
  • People who become infected with COVID-19 should be ashamed

These types of thoughts may lead to even riskier behavior. If individuals feel too ashamed to notify others that they might have unknowingly exposed them to COVID-19, the virus will continue to spread.

This stigma of COVID-19 “stops people from accessing health services and prevents public health measures from effectively controlling pandemics,” says Winnie Byanyima, executive director of UNAIDS.

An employee might not tell their workplace that they have had a possible exposure if they don’t want to look irresponsible. Friends and family may not disclose COVID-19 symptoms that appear after get-togethers in fear of upsetting people about their attendance in the first place.

Some unavoidable circumstances influence COVID-19 exposure risk, even when people are doing the best the can. Some people are essential workers, others might not have a job that allows remote work, and others may not have a choice about how they isolate themselves in their homes. Speculating how someone became positive can fuel feelings of shame. It isn't productive.

How To Manage Your COVID-19 Guilt 

“Emotions are how we communicate to ourselves,” Jeffrey Cohen, PsyD, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University, tells Verywell. “Guilt signals that we may need to repair a relationship or change our actions after we have engaged in a behavior that is not aligned with our values. However, just because we experience an emotion doesn't mean that it is justified.”

Cohen emphasizes the importance of realizing emotions don't always correlate with facts. “The first step to managing guilt around contracting COVID-19 is determining if the emotion of guilt fits the facts,” Cohen says. “Ask yourself: 'Is the emotion of guilt justified here?'”

If you have not been following public health protocols, Cohen says, your guilt is "doing its job" by reminding you not to put yourself or your community at risk. “It might sound strange, but if you had no guilt—then you might likely continue to put yourself at risk for contracting COVID-19," he says. "So if you are putting yourself at risk, your guilt is a helpful signal to stop reckless behavior.”

For those who have been following the Centers for Disease Control guidelines (CDC), Cohen says the "guilt does not fit facts." In those moments, he says, try to "validate yourself by remembering that you have been following CDC guidelines and that contracting COVID-19 can be outside of your control."

Above all, being kind to yourself during the pandemic is key. “Irrespective of whether or not guilt fits the facts around contracting COVID-19, be kind to yourself and treat yourself with compassion,” Cohen says. “Self-compassion is always helpful especially when guilt signals that we may need to change our behavior.”

Reducing COVID-19 Stigma in Our Communities

In an effort to chip away at COVID-19 stigma within our communities, the Johns Hopkins report advises us to be open, honest, and gracious with each other. If someone you know informs you of their positive COVID-19 diagnosis, let them know you appreciate their openness and communication.

If you test positive for COVID-19, cooperate with health department officials and let them know who you have been in contact with. And if a friend or relative says no to face-to-face interaction, understand it is because they want to stop the spread of the pandemic, and not because of personal reasons. Think before you respond to others in this moment or post on social media; your actions could influence others.

“It can be helpful to remember that everyone is doing the best that they can in an unprecedented and uniquely challenging situation,” Cohen says. “Find kindness and compassion, because judgment and blame often make a bad situation worse.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Rogers LS, Health JBS of P. COVID-19 and stigma. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Updated January 13, 2021.

  2. John Hopkins University. Webinar: national pandemic pulse round 1. Updated November 12, 2020.