Fear, Shame, and COVID-19

woman in green and white stripe shirt covering her face with white mask
Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Pexels.com

Heading towards the fourth month in Canada of social distancing, the seriousness of COVID-19 has not diminished and the mental health impacts of being socially isolated are starting to become more apparent.  My neighbours, and even myself, have started to take more risks when it comes to the regulations: more “driveway” and social distance visits, more justifications to expand the circle, and more attempts to inject some normal into our lives.

The conversations around this disease are starting to shift as people are making large efforts to be sensitive to everyone else’s needs, comfort level, and risk factors while balancing their own need to get back into more natural social packs.  Historically I would describe myself as more of a “lone wolf”, favouring small and intimate connections over large packs, but this experience has taught me that my need for human connection is stronger than I imagined. I’ve found myself lingering longer with friendly frontline workers, talking about the weather or any other non-COVID topic they are willing to engage in through plexiglass on my supply runs.. and after seeing a few friends for a backyard social distance visit for the first time since this all started last week, I am more aware than ever that I need good people around me to feel balanced.

Something interesting that I am noticing is that most people seem very hesitant to admit that they feel any fear over infection.  Most cite a loved one, roommate, or contact as the reason for their lack of contact: “I’m okay, but so-and-so is so uncomfortable so I stay away”.

I’m not saying that we should lift any restrictions, the threat of this horrible disease is still very real with no cure or vaccine close on the horizon.  It is still important to do our part to ensure the safety of the population and no one should feel more uncomfortable than needed or be placed at unnecessary risk. But – what I find interesting about these ongoing discussions is they indicate a very real problem: there is shame associated with being afraid, and shame keeps people from talking about fear.  I say this because in some of my conversations the same people are blaming each other for being afraid. I suspect this is not always miscommunication, but more likely a reluctance to admit their own fear.

I find this especially sad, because I believe most people genuinely want to do their best for others.  If there is something I can do (or not do) in order to make you more comfortable and at ease in your interactions with me, I would be happy to do my best to accommodate. But – if those conversations don’t happen, I don’t know how you’re feeling and I can’t do my part to help you feel better.

I also understand that admitting fear is not an easy thing to do. I grew up in an environment where it was not okay to feel negative things. It was wrong to be scared, to require reassurance or accommodation. To this day, admitting I need something is still peppered with shame… but, I will say, that “normal and healthy” people do not make you feel worse for having a negative feeling. It is okay and normal to be scared, and it is worth pushing through the discomfort of shame to have better quality connections, especially in this time where connection is more challenging than it has ever been before.