Career advice

How to escape the cycle of pandemic-induced guilt

Nurses who aren’t on the COVID-19 front line should not feel weighed down

Picture: iStock

Of all the new phrases coined of late, my favourite has to be ‘corona-coaster’ – the emotional instability many of us are feeling as we try to navigate the COVID-19 landscape.

I have experienced intense periods of sadness, frustration and fear, interspersed with feelings of gratitude and joy. But I have also been aware of a murky grey emotion hovering between these extremes – guilt.

Once a nurse, always a nurse

Despite not having worked in clinical practice for many years, I still think of myself as a nurse. My career has taken me in a different direction, which I love, but no job has ever given me the satisfaction that hands-on nursing did.

When, like thousands of others, I received a request from the Nursing and Midwifery Council asking if I would return to the register, I really hoped I could make it work. I even filled out the first stage of the form, but deep down I knew I wouldn’t be returning to the wards; I live with a long-term condition so my health prevents me from putting on my uniform again.

I had to face the fact that in the country’s hour of need, I couldn’t do what I was trained to do.

But it’s not just illness that prevents nurses from going back on the front line. Some may have other caring commitments, or live with vulnerable family members who cannot be put at risk. Others may be continuing in management or research roles or working in a different field altogether, while some may just not want to go back.

How to escape the damaging cycle of guilt

Most of the time logic prevails when the guilt kicks in and I know that as well as looking after myself, I am doing a worthwhile job running my business.

But other times, especially when I am feeling vulnerable, I start thinking about what I could or should be doing.

We don’t need Freudian theories to tell us how powerful an emotion guilt can be, but punishing yourself with feelings of guilt is never helpful.

In her blog Understanding the Cycle of Guilt, psychotherapist Laura Prins says dealing with guilt is fundamentally an issue of self-acceptance – it is only when we accept our situation for what it is that we can find peace in what we are doing, instead of dwelling on what we could or should be doing.

But self-acceptance doesn’t come overnight, so here are some tips to help you deal with any guilt you may be feeling right now:

  • Reframe your thinking Focus on what you can do instead of what you cannot. This may involve consciously challenging your thinking and can be hard work, but stick at it.
  • Distract yourself It is easy to get stuck in patterns of unhelpful thinking, such as comparing yourself to others. I call my negative thinking cycles ‘hamster wheels’ – when the wheel gathers so much momentum it is difficult to step off and I have to distract myself so I forget to pedal.
  • Don’t bottle things up We may be social distancing but we still need a shoulder to cry on. Be honest about how you are feeling and talk to trusted colleagues, friends or family.
  • Don’t expect too much of yourself It is easy to put too much pressure on ourselves to be productive on our days off. Some of you may want to learn a new skill or spring-clean the house, but if you want to use the time to rest and recover, that’s fine. Do whatever works best for you.
  • Be kind to yourself Imagine you were nursing yourself – what would you say or do? Just as the saying goes ‘charity begins at home’, so does self-care and compassion. Life is hard right now, so give yourself a break.
  • Have faith in yourself Regardless of your professional or personal circumstances, have faith in the choices you make. Like cogs in a wheel, we are all doing our bit.

View our COVID-19 resources centre

Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach with a nursing background. She runs a healthcare training company

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