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Coping With the Guilt Of 'Lost Time' During COVID-19

man stressed about tasks

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Key Takeaways

  • Since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted routines and added stress to people's lives, making accomplishing big goals less of a priority.
  • Cases of anxiety and depression have increased alongside lower energy and feelings of burnout.
  • Techniques such as acknowledging less obvious accomplishments and not comparing yourself to others can help mitigate the feeling of "lost time."

It couldn’t have been more than three weeks into the COVID-19 pandemic that iterations of the following began to emerge: “Remember that William Shakespeare wrote King Lear during quarantine.”

This early into lockdown the idea seemed—almost—admirable, though still irksome. The complete morbid reality of the pandemic hadn’t fully hit, and the belief that you could spend a few weeks at home being productive and then return to work by the end of the month was common.

Over a year on, we all know that was far from the case. Instead, grief and burnout became the norm, and simply surviving could be seen as an exceptional feat. However, as a dim light at the end of this horrific tunnel grows slightly brighter for some countries, you may feel like just getting through it wasn’t enough. There’s a prevailing idea that you should have something to show for the past year-plus, instead of it becoming like “lost time.”

Reflecting on life post-March 2020 may cause this worry, but it has undoubtedly existed since then in some iteration. “As soon as the pandemic hit, an implicit competition began about who could be the most productive, positive, and efficient,” says Dr. Sabrina Romanoff, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.

“An idea was implanted that time saved from non-existent commutes, happy hours, and parties had to be substituted with external markers of productivity," Romanoff says.

Aimee Daramus, PsyD

If you were reading a book, it would be very strange if the characters focused on getting a promotion during a zombie apocalypse. Nobody in the Hunger Games brought a laptop and worked on writing a book. They allowed their priorities to change when necessary.

— Aimee Daramus, PsyD

For many people, this supposed extra time never materialized. In its place came burnout, anguish, and enough motivation to do only what was necessary, if that. As Romanoff explains, “Replacing the mostly-mundane pre-pandemic activities with learning a new language or craft during a global pandemic is incongruous with the increased amount of strain folks held during this time.”

The Importance of Downtime During The Pandemic

Even if you found the energy to start working towards a big goal, it may have negatively affected your well-being if it left you with no time to recoup and relax. “Downtime is necessary for individuals to assuage their anxiety and lead healthier, happier lives,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a Johns Hopkins-trained adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist and regional medical director for Community Psychiatry, California's largest outpatient mental health organization.

Taking time for yourself is all the more prevalent, with mental health issues spiking during the pandemic. In a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42% of U.S. adults reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, compared to 11% between January to June 2019.

The ongoing nature of the pandemic’s stressors further merits the need for downtime. “Your body and mind can't be in emergency mode all the time without risking permanent consequences to your health,” says Aimee Daramus, PsyD, author of Understanding Bipolar Disorder. “When you allow yourself to rest and feel good, you're also protecting your mind and body.”

How to Cope With the Guilt Of “Lost Time” 

Even if you’ve come to terms with the fact that the pandemic was not an open call for productivity, the idea of losing time to its continual despair can be challenging to accept. Exploring this feeling—yes, in your downtime recuperation—can help you move forward with a better understanding of yourself and the strength you’ve exhibited. Here are a few ways to begin coping with the guilt of lost time in the pandemic.

Avoid Comparison

Yes, some people may now have accomplishments that remain goals for you. That doesn’t mean you did anything wrong or should have pursued it. No one was exempt from experiencing the pandemic’s repercussions, but each person didn’t feel the same effects—or were as transparent about their struggles.

Comparison truly is the theft of joy. When you hold the unrealistic portrayal of others’ lives as a reference point—be it social media or even a friend’s experience—you miss out on all the challenges, struggles, and differential factors, both hidden and apparent, that color each person’s world,” says Romanoff.

Grant Yourself Understanding

Honestly reflect on your decisions and experiences of the past year, and you may cut yourself more slack. “If you were reading a book, it would be very strange if the characters focused on getting a promotion during a zombie apocalypse. Nobody in the Hunger Games brought a laptop and worked on writing a book. They allowed their priorities to change when necessary,” says Daramus.

Instead of focusing on traditional, big projects, your time and energy went towards a more immediate problem.

Pandemic-related anxiety can impact your mind’s ability to process and remember things, says Magavi. In a 2019 study from Frontiers in Psychology, researchers found a negative association between anxiety and working memory in adults who were not also depressed.

Acknowledge Your Accomplishments

Not writing the next great American novel or taking a long-awaited trip is not the same as accomplishing nothing.

Also, in navigating the pandemic, you inherently did accomplish something. “You had new precautions to remember and some basic science to learn to understand the situation,” says Daramus. “You might have been dealing with anxiety, depression, loneliness, or grief in ways that you never have before. You might have had to redesign the way that you work, have relationships, and exercise. You might have had to learn some new skills around the house that you’re used to having help with. If you look back, you probably did a lot more than you think.”

One clear example comes from parents who used their scant energy to help their children with virtual classes or spend extra time entertaining them.

Leela Magavi, MD

Downtime is necessary for individuals to assuage their anxiety and lead healthier, happier lives.

— Leela Magavi, MD

Daramus suggests making a list of all the challenges you’ve overcome and new things you’ve learned. Commend yourself for this incredible achievement.

Look to the Future

There’s no getting the lost time back, but you have a future filled with possibilities after surviving the pandemic. We’re not fully into the after quite yet, but it’s close enough to begin thinking about what you want it to look like. Romanoff recommends identifying what your goals are and what paths you can venture on to accomplish them.

What This Means For You

There has been nothing normal about the past year-plus. Acknowledging that your usual way of working and pursuing achievements needed to change is critical. You've kept going in the face of all this—an undeniable accomplishment in itself.

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  1. Abbott A. COVID's mental-health toll: how scientists are tracking a surge in depression. Nature News. Published February 3, 2021.

  2. Lukasik KM, Waris O, Soveri A, Lehtonen M, Laine M. The Relationship of Anxiety and Stress With Working Memory Performance in a Large Non-depressed Sample. Frontiers in Psychology. 2019;10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00004