At the time of this writing, nearly 3 billion people are under some form of COVID-19-related lockdown, creating an unprecedented situation that, for some, has dredged up several anxieties. Entire communities are stuck at home, isolated from friends, family, and everyday distractions. That should, in theory, free up time and allow for increased productivity. 

Look at Isaac Newton, who experienced his “year of wonder” in 1665 while isolating himself from the Great Plague of London. During that time, he made groundbreaking discoveries and invented calculus.

“If you’re working or studying from home over the next few weeks, perhaps remember the example Newton set,” The Washington Post said in an article published in March.

The message that a pandemic = productivity has been echoed and exaggerated on social media, where countless posts are circulating, encouraging people to finish writing their novel, redecorate their home, or lose that extra 10 pounds.

If Newton can invent calculus during a pandemic, surely you can re-organize your kitchen cabinets.

Not necessarily.

As it turns out, many of us can’t be productive during a pandemic — and if you’re feeling guilt over that, you aren’t alone.

We reached out to Danielle Hulan, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist practicing in Toronto, to share her thoughts on pandemic guilt, coping mechanisms, and healthy ways to move past negative thoughts.

Here’s what she had to say.

What’s your advice to people who feel guilt for not being “productive enough” during the pandemic? 

DH: In many ways, we’ve learned to tie our worth to our level of productivity.

If we have more time, we think we need to be more productive. Our brains may not automatically understand that while we might have more time, we are also learning to cope with a global pandemic. 

How can we expect productivity when we are also flooded with fear, anxiety, nervousness, confusion, frustration, loneliness, sadness, and grief?

Can you recommend any coping strategies for people who are struggling with pandemic guilt? 

DH: We tend not to be overly validating of our own emotions, and we’re much more comfortable staying in the realm of logic, i.e., more time = more productivity.

I might start by trying to name the different feelings you are experiencing right now, and perhaps even since your life began to be affected by the pandemic.

This step alone might be enough to allow you to feel compassion for the space you’ve needed to check-out, rest, do nothing, or do other activities that you hadn’t considered necessarily productive, like video chats with friends and family, making or creating art or food, or simply staring at the ceiling. 

VIDEO: Dealing with pandemic anxiety

If you’re feeling strongly affected by guilt, it could be a good time to check your social media usage, because our brains are trained to judge ourselves based on relative reference points.

You might be affected by a myriad of posts about other people’s productivity during this time. Just think of all those loaves of homemade bread, posts about online courses, and timelapse videos of exercise and yoga that are making the rounds.

Do you think feelings of productivity guilt are normal?

DH: Guilt is one of those functional emotions – meaning it can be quite adaptive to the human species to experience it.

It’s meant to flood us with uncomfortable sensations as a cue that we have behaved in a way that is outside of our own, or our familial, cultural, or societal values. 

It’s meant to be uncomfortable enough that we won’t repeat the behaviour. 

In the case of the pandemic, guilt is definitely a common experience, but a curious one. 

When experiencing pandemic-related guilt, ask yourself this: 

  • Have you really done something against your values? 
  • Have you acted in a way that must not ever be repeated? 
  • Or, have you just been slowly trying to process the immense amount of change and loss and isolation that your life has just experienced? 

I think sometimes our guilt is worth questioning or understanding on a deeper level. 

Reminder: Self-care is productive. File photo/Unsplash/edited by We Rep STEM.

Some people may be overwhelmed by the current situation and, because of that, unable to comfort others. What would you say to them?

DH: Fill your cup. 

What needs to happen so you can feel even a small amount more like yourself? 

Wrap yourself in as many comforts and supports as you can muster.

Find the ground beneath your feet. When you do this, you will be in a stronger position to offer support to your family, friends, or community. 

Try to be patient with yourself and know comforting others can be done in many different ways, like sending a text, supporting a small business, expressing gratitude to your cashier, or making a cup of tea for someone in your house.

Offer what you can, when you are ready. 

Other coping tips

Here are some other ways to deal with pandemic anxiety, courtesy of the CDC:

  • Limit how much news you take in.
  • Expose yourself to nature. Go for a socially-distant walk if that’s a possibility in your community or just step outside your front door and feel the fresh air.
  • Be kind and patient with yourself and with others.
  • Check in on friends and family via social media or phone.
  • Eat healthily, try to stay active, and keep hydrated.
  • Rest.
  • Remember: We are all in this together.
  • Look for local resources that provide coaching for anxiety and depression.

Note: Slight edits were made to some responses for grammar, flow, and clarity.

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