Commentary: Stop feeling guilty about thriving during COVID-19

PERTH: Everyones pandemic experience is unfolding differently. Theres no denying COVID-19 has been devastating for millions of people around the world.

At the worst end of the spectrum are the millions of cases and hundreds of thousands of people who have died, as well as their grieving friends and families.



There are also likely millions suffering financial hardship due to the pandemic, which in many cases will be affecting their mental health.

But at the other end of the spectrum are those who are not only doing well, but in some cases thriving. For some people, this can lead to a kind of “survivor guilt” – believing theyve done something wrong by surviving and thriving during the pandemic.


The term survivor guilt is usually used to describe the emotional distress some people feel after surviving a traumatic event in which others have died, such as a natural disaster or terrorist attack.

It has been identified in military veterans, those who survived the Holocaust, 9/11 survivors, and emergency first responders.



COVID-19 has certainly been a traumatic experience and has had a profound impact on mental health. Around 1,000 people have died by suicide in Australia since it began and modelling from the University of Sydney found suicide deaths could rise by 25 per cent annually for the next five years.

Supporting others going through difficult times is a way of giving back. (Photo: Serena Wong/Pixabay)

During COVID-19 we have witnessed the conventional type of survivor guilt associated with surviving the coronavirus when hundreds of thousands havent.

But not everyone is struggling, and this has resulted in a new type of survivor guilt. This emerging type of guilt is characterised by not feeling “impacted enough” by the pandemic.

This type of survivor guilt can be seen in the workplace. The pandemic has forced many organisations to reduce staffing, causing some remaining employees to feel guilty, according to John Hackston, head of thought leadership at the Myers-Briggs Company.

Survivor guilt can result in a range of emotions, from shame to a sense of unworthiness or even anger. When emotions are not processed properly, they can impact our physical and mental health and cause depression, anxiety and physical illness.

Survivor guilt has been documented by psychologists in people such as war veterans and disaster survivors. But it could be felt by some people who are doing well despite the global COVID-19 pandemic.

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While mental health advocates and support groups are right to remind people who are struggling that its “OK not to be OK” during this pandemic, its important to remember its “OK to be OK” too.

During a global public health crisis, no one should feel bad for being healthy or able to continue working. And if this pandemic has resulted in opportunities not just to survive but to thrive, we should celebrate those wins.

Cassie Mogilner Holmes, associate professor of behavioural decision-making at the University of California says its not only OK, but essential, to enjoy ones good fortune.

“Its actually more important now than ever to focus on our personal emotional health,” says Holmes.

Professor Kim Felmingham from the University of Melbourne says feeling guilty about being “OK” during these challenging times isnt just a “perfectly normal” reaction — its part of our evolutionary programming.

Thats because feeling survivor guilt means you are feeling empathy for others who have been less fortunate. In an evolutionary sense, empathy allows us to form close social bonds and connections with others.

“So give yourself a break, dont beat yourself up if you are feeling guilty,” says Felmingham.

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