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Are you feeling 'vaccine envy'? What it means and how to cope

It can be hard to watch others get vaccinated while still waiting for your own appointment. Experts share their advice.
Illustration of woman looking over fence looking at people getting vaccinated
Katty Huertas / TODAY / Getty Images

Vaccine selfies and pictures of vaccine cards signal a new phase in the coronavirus pandemic: A chance to build up herd immunity, prevent the virus from spreading further, and finally bring the world back to normal.

However, if you're in a low-priority group, or if you're seeing friends and family in states who live in areas with faster vaccine distribution, those pictures can spur a new feeling: Vaccine envy.

Just like jealousy, the primary driver behind vaccine envy is the want for something you can't yet have. In this case, the stakes are a little bit higher, according to Dr. Jessica Stern, a clinical psychologist at NYU Langone Health.

"I think for a lot of people, the vaccine is a concrete representation of hope, or a mechanism for people to start to feel more capable in moving forward in this pandemic," said Stern. "A lot of people are really hoping that this is going to be the opportunity that will allow them to start to reengage in their life."

What causes vaccine envy?

Dr. Lauren Cook, a therapist based in Los Angeles, said that for the most part, "vaccine envy" is caused by a feeling of lack of control.

"Really, this whole year with the pandemic there's been just an absolute lack of control ... and so it's like, 'Oh, we're almost there at the end of this road,' and so many of us have to be patient for a little bit longer," Cook said. "I think it feels very frustrating for people, they feel like they can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but they're still trapped in the tunnel as they're seeing other people get out of the tunnel. I think that's really hard for people to sit with."

Stern said that the vaccine's complicated rollout could also lead to more feelings of envy, as well as some anxiety.

"People are seeing other people in their life get vaccinated, or hearing about all of these vaccinations being offered to people, and they are, in many cases, feeling anxious about 'When is it going to be my turn? What if they run out of doses before it gets to me? Is this going to delay the process for me?'" Stern explained. "...There hasn't been a whole lot of clarity in what this process looks like, and there's been so much variation from state to state and even within states that for a lot of people it's confusing."

"What's especially difficult is that there have been a couple of false starts, where people thought they were going to be up next, and then there would be a shortage or a vaccination center shut down unexpectedly due to weather," Stern continued. "There have been moments for people where they thought they were just about to get it. ... And then they were told 'It's just going to be a little more delayed.' That confusion, that stop-and-go-nature, has been especially anxiety-provoking and frustrating."

Cook said that another cause behind negative, jealous feelings are situations where people are able to "skip" the line and get their vaccine early, either by paying more, lying about a health condition, or just being in the right place at the right time.

"That's so invalidating, especially when people have been really patient in the process and feel like they've been respectful of their neighbors," Cook explained. "That feels really unfair to people, naturally."

How can I cope with feelings of vaccine envy?

If you're worried that your feelings of jealousy and envy are becoming overwhelming, Stern and Cook each offered some advice.

Cook offered a three-step plan: Start by "letting go of control" and try to accept the "reality of the situation: Anger and envy are valid emotions, she said, but feeling them might only exacerbate existing feelings of stress.

If that doesn't work, try reframing the feeling in a positive light.

"Look at your envy in a different way, because it's actually a huge sign that you care, that you're passionate about not only your own health but the health of other people," Cook said. "Acknowledge that the envy is there but look at it as a sign of how much you really are invested in the well-being of yourself and the well-being of others."

Last, remember that this isn't a solo activity, but a group one: "Each vaccine makes you a little safer," Cook said. "While we can feel upset that it's not our turn yet, remember that herd immunity develops as more and more people get the vaccine. Consider each shot as one step closer to getting us back to the lives we want to be leading, even if that shot may not be going into your arm today."

Stern added that another thing to keep in mind when dealing with vaccine envy is remember that many people are likely feeling the same.

"This is the first time that most people in this lifetime have experienced a human or unilateral innovation ... related to vaccines," said Stern. "There have been other global health pandemics, but this is really one of the first times we've seen a huge rollout, globally, that has been more or less entirely new. It's confusing for people to figure out how to process this and what to make of this, and there's a lot of excitement but we're kind of figuring it out as we go along."

Stern said that if you feel overwhelmed by coronavirus related news, it could be a good idea to try to limit your news and media consumption: Rely on trusted sources and knowledgeable experts, and try to be mindful of how much news you consume.

"It could be unnecessarily exacerbating your anxiety and actually making things a lot worse than they need to be," she said.

If negative emotions are continuing to have a major impact on your life, Stern recommended speaking with a healthcare professional or mental health expert.