Guilt mixed with gratitude. Nostalgia tinged with remorse. Dread combined with anticipation. These are just a few of the feelings we might experience in a given day — or hour — while sheltering in place. This wacky mashup of intense emotions may make you concerned for your sanity, but according to mental health experts, this is all par for the course of living through a pandemic.
Here’s a look at some of the seemingly strange — but perfectly normal — feelings therapists have observed in their clients in recent weeks.
1. Wanting quarantine to end, but not really
“Many people privately express to me that they are ‘enjoying’ quarantine,” says Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist. “My introverted clients, in particular, are quite pleased with the slower pace of life. Yet, at the same time, it is also normal to desperately want the shelter-in-place orders to end given that they are government-imposed rather than a personal choice.”
2. Guilt and gratitude at the same time
Alisa Kamis-Brinda, licensed clinical social worker, notices patients feeling profound guilt along with a sense of gratitude.
“They are grateful for all that they have, but like everyone else, have uncomfortable feelings about the changes in their lives or feel fearful about what is happening,” Kamis-Brinda says. “Then they remember that there are people who are really struggling with health, financial issues or basic needs. Their mind tells them that they shouldn’t feel bad because of all that they have. It makes sense. They are human and struggling with the scary things going on and the major changes in their lives. At the same time, they know that they are fortunate for all that they have.”
3. A drop in anxiety when you’re typically really anxious
“One interesting paradox I've noticed among my clients who have pre-existing anxiety is actually a reduction in their anxious symptoms, since they feel that, finally, everyone around them is experiencing what they have felt in ‘normal’ times,” says Rebecca Shaw, licensed clinical social worker.
“During normal times, people who suffer from anxiety often feel out of place. That’s both a symptom of the anxiety itself and a byproduct of living in a society in which the majority of people do not experience clinical anxiety. That byproduct effect can compound the symptoms that are already there, making the experience of anxiety much more intense — but in the society we’re living in these days — with markedly higher numbers of people experiencing severe anxiety for the first time — a percentage of those who already suffered from anxiety before the pandemic no longer have that ‘out of place in society’ feeling. It’s almost as if pre-coronavirus anxiety sufferers are veterans of the condition. It’s definitely important to note that those experiencing a decrease in their anxiety symptoms are in the minority, but the phenomenon is fascinating nonetheless.”
4. Nostalgia for the past — and regret for the road not taken
“This smaller world we find ourselves in might remind us of our childhoods, and we might be drawn to things we haven't thought about in a long time,” says Randy Paterson, a psychologist and author. “Related to this is a flight to security. For example, we might find ourselves drawn to the books we read as children or old television shows. I was in a store the other day and found myself looking over the Lego kits.”
Paterson also observes people feeling “regret for opportunities not taken,” adding: “We lived in a world of thousands of restaurants, parks, activities, friends we could have invited over, vacations we might have taken, changes that we could have made in our lives when we had more security and freedom, and so on. For now, at least, many of these opportunities are limited.”
5. Intense grief without a direct cause
“Many clients have expressed a sense of grief and loss that is not commensurate with their direct experience,” says Natalie Mica, licensed professional counselor. “This is a normal reaction to the multitude of losses the collective is facing during this time. In addition, the loss of routine schedules, hobbies, touch, pleasures, entertainment, etc. can account for this.”
6. Apprehension about returning to ‘normal’
“Some people are realizing that they were pretty unhappy in pre-pandemic times, and are unenthusiastic about the idea of returning to an unsatisfying job, or to commuting,” says Jennie Steinberg, licensed marriage family therapist. “Other people really want to resume their pre-pandemic lives but feel a lot of fear about going back out into the world. A lot of people are feeling very uncertain about what ‘moving forward’ looks like.”
Accept these feelings and don’t judge yourself
What are we to do with all these mixed up feelings? Just let them be. Don’t judge or try to change them.
“Accepting our feelings for what they are, rather than trying to fight them, is crucial, since fighting ourselves leads to exhaustion, anger and self-blame — not to mention, it doesn't really work,” says Shaw.
Celeste Viciere, licensed mental health clinician suggests we might also boost our self-compassion given that none of us “has experienced being in a pandemic” before. “There is no right or wrong way to feel. Take it one day at a time. If today is not a good day, that is OK. Work on resetting tomorrow.”