When COVID-19 vaccines became available in the U.S., many individuals faced difficult emotional dilemmas due to variable vaccination rates––including forms of anxiety, guilt and shaming.

“Anxiety can occur when we are faced with an unknown. Many people have heard that the COVID-19 vaccine will enable life to return to normal,” says Sophia Albott, MD, MA, adult psychiatrist at the M Physicians St. Louis Park Clinic. “When faced with something that promises to end the chronic stress of a global pandemic, it can be challenging to wait. For this reason, people may feel anxiety in anticipation of when their turn will come.”

The ability to cope with these negative emotions starts with acknowledging them.

“Oftentimes, naming an emotion enables us to move on from that emotion,” Dr. Albott says. “I also think that focusing on simple ways of coping can be enormously helpful––getting a full night of sleep, getting outside and moving and connecting with people that care about us can go a long way in enabling people to tolerate the anxiety associated with waiting for the vaccine.”

Guilt is another common way of managing vaccine-related anxiety. Many individuals feel as though they may not deserve priority for the vaccine, or that other’s needs should have taken priority over their own.

“Guilt can occur when it feels that, for whatever reason, our health needs superseded the needs of someone else. For example, healthcare workers chose to dedicate their lives to the care of others, so the idea of taking a health resource for oneself can feel very at odds with our professional ethics,” Dr. Albott says.

That being said, the vaccine is being offered to people not only because they are at risk of negative health outcomes from infection––but also to prevent the spread of the virus.

“I recommend to my patients who feel guilty that they focus on having “done their part” to curb the global numbers of infection,” Dr. Albott says. “Again, focusing on simple coping strategies (rest, movement, emotional connection) and recognizing the vaccine will be soon offered to the general public can hopefully help people keep their guilt in perspective.”

And although most of the population is eligible to receive the vaccine, there is still a lack of acceptance surrounding the vaccine in some communities.

“The important thing to remember when discussing the vaccine with people in our lives who may not want to get the vaccine is to keep a respectful tone and to encourage dialogue,” Dr. Albott says. “The success of the vaccine for ending the pandemic will rest on achieving “herd immunity.” For this reason, keeping an open flow of dialogue is most likely to enable people to accept the importance of getting the vaccine––most people won’t change their mind in response to being “shamed” for not getting it.”

Read this 5Q to read more about COVID-19 vaccine guilt, anxiety and shame.