Elisa Huber * was in the dark for a little more than two days. Her Corona warning app had turned red on a Friday. A PCR test confirmed: Huber was positive. Only a few hours later I received a call: Her 86-year-old mother has to go to the hospital with a severe fever. Huber had only recently visited her mother in the nursing home – before she knew she had Covid-19.
“That’s when I started panic,” she says. In her head the questions were racing: Has she infected her mother? And what about the other residents in the nursing home? She called her brother, “Can you take care of the mother?” Then she threw herself in a corner and cried.
In a pandemic, it’s quick to put others at risk. Even those who keep their distance, wear a mask and mostly stay at home can become infected, fail to notice and infect others. For many of those affected, fear and feelings of guilt spread: Am I responsible for the fact that a person – possibly a loved one – is sick?
Acting sensibly has gotten more complicated. We should no longer hug our parents, celebrate parties, reduce our social contacts – everyday things are no longer allowed if you want to protect yourself and others. Bearing responsibility demands a lot more from us than usual: Many try to stick to the rules and still fail. So where does guilt begin?
“Life is always life-threatening”
Katarina Stengler is chief physician at the Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the Helios Park Clinic in Leipzig. As a psychiatry professor, she has to deal with fears, worries and self-reproach on a daily basis. Diffuse, heterogeneous and above all complex, she says, is the current situation. The situation is constantly changing and with it the applicable rules. There is never one hundred percent certainty that you will not harm someone else with your own actions – especially not in a pandemic. “Life is always life-threatening,” says Stengler.
Guilt is actually a very useful feeling. She directs our social interaction. A guilty conscience comes in when we feel responsible for someone else’s suffering or harm. Guilt is an ancient moral emotion based on do’s, don’ts, rules and their potential violation. It also helps avoid repeating mistakes.
Regulations like the Basic Law give direction to what our society allows – and what not. Nevertheless, the limit as to when and for what we feel guilty is subjective and often fluid. Some feel guilty quickly, others hardly ever.
This can be transferred to the corona situation. One can ask: Do I have a part in what is happening here? How do I endanger others? “Of course, nobody can walk around with a tape measure and measure whether the distance to everyone else is at least 1.5 meters,” says the psychologist.
But everyone is in a position to think about how best to implement the safety rules in their everyday lives. Can I take my child to school by car? Do you urgently need to visit your relatives? Is it really only possible to work in the office? “That also gives security,” says Stengler.
“The question in the back of my mind remains whether one could not have done something differently.”
In a difficult to grasp situation like the corona pandemic, however, feelings of guilt that are actually useful can quickly play tricks on us. This manifests itself in different ways: Veronika Müller * is 26 years old and actually not a person who ponders a lot. During her Covid 19 illness, however, she suddenly found it difficult to accept compassion from others. Relatives and friends worry, send chocolate and flowers: “That almost felt like an exaggeration,” she says.
Something about the hygiene rules, she tells herself, she must have done wrong. “Maybe I was careless. Or just stupid. ”Although she actually knows that she has behaved responsibly and that there is always a residual risk, she looks to herself to blame. “The question in the back of your mind remains whether you could have done something differently.” Once set off, chains of thought such as “I shouldn’t have” and “What if” are difficult to break. If these questions become independent, it can even become life-defining – and in the worst case, end in a psychological crisis.
Feelings of guilt are a key symptom of depression. Self-reproach is not enough to make a diagnosis. Mentally healthy people can also feel guilty. But depressed people look at themselves, their environment and the future in a very negative way. “On the one hand, this leads to a lot of brooding, and on the one hand, thoughts revolve around one’s own past actions, which are seen as the cause of one’s own guilt,” says Youssef Shiban.
He is Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Private University of Göttingen (PFH). Preliminary results of a study he leads show that the corona pandemic is leading to a significant increase in psychological stress. “As depression rises, it can be assumed that people will suffer more from feelings of guilt,” says Shiban. Many are affected.
“The head knows that you are not to blame”
External accusations can further reinforce self-reproach. For example, Hannah Müller *, whose entire family is sick with Covid-19. Her husband showed the first symptoms, and the two kindergarten children also got a slight runny nose. “We put that on the change in weather at the beginning of October,” she says. Nobody thought of Covid-19 – the family was always careful.
A test ordered by the doctor brings the result. Müller and the two children are also examined – they are all positive. The family has to be in isolation and numerous other people in quarantine with them. Employers, day care centers and the rest of the environment are informed. “Many were shocked,” says Müller. “Besides, the talk started.”
Voices from the outside mix into the already emotional exceptional situation. Untruths are spread about Müller and her family. The talk of the others increases the self-reproach. She and her husband also wonder what they could have done differently – and come to the conclusion that there is nothing. Nevertheless: “The head knows that you are not to blame,” says Müller. “But the feeling speaks something different.”
Recognize unjustified feelings of guilt
What is the best way to deal with this self-doubt? And how do you live with it when you’ve done real harm to someone else? According to Shiban, the first step is to face one’s guilt – that is, to examine real responsibility. “Feelings of guilt are usually based on a triggering situation,” he says. It is helpful to ask whether you could have prevented the damage done with the knowledge you had at the time of the action – and whether the consequences were foreseeable.
In the case of the corona pandemic, these would be questions such as “Was I secretly at a party, although it was not allowed?” Or “Did I keep my positive corona test secret?” If these questions are answered honestly, one can guilt tangibly Set the framework. If there is actually a real responsibility, one should accept the situation and draw the conclusions from it – for example, by following the safety measures in the future.
If allegations come from other people, it is important to assess them objectively. This is achieved by realizing that there are also causes outside of your own actions that could have caused an illness. So you have to learn to accept that some things are out of your control. Dangers can be reduced by dealing with the threat in accordance with the rules. According to Shiban, especially in times of corona, it is important to remember that there is a residual risk with every action.
After the initial shock, Elisa Huber also tells herself that she behaved responsibly when she visited her mother in the nursing home. She had taken a fever beforehand, wore a mask during the visit and did not hug her mother. So she calms down until the all-clear comes: the mother’s two corona tests are negative.
* The names have been changed. The editors are familiar with the people.