What Is Survivors Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is when someone has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening event, but others did not. It is common to react this way to a traumatic event and is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can also occur in relation to a loss of life. They may question why they were able to escape death while others lost their lives and wonder whether there was something they could have done to prevent the traumatic event or save a life. Survivor’s guilt used to be its own diagnosis, but mental health professionals now consider it to be a significant symptom of PTSD. People who may suffer from survivors guilt may include:

  • War Veterans
  • First Responders
  • Holocaust Survivors
  • 9/11 Survivors
  • Cancer Survivors
  • Transplant Recipients
  • Crash Survivors
  • Natural Disaster Survivors
  • Witnesses to a traumatic event
  • Family members of those who have developed a fatal hereditary condition
  • People who have lost a family member to suicide
  • Parents who outlive their child

Common symptoms
People who survive traumatic events may experience one or more of the following:

  • Flashbacks of the traumatic event
  • Obsessive thoughts about the event
  • Irritability and Anger
  • Feelings of helplessness and disconnection
  • Fear and Confusion
  • Lack of Motivation
  • Problems Sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Nausea or Stomachaches
  • Social Isolation
  • Thoughts of Suicide
  • Perceive the world as unfair and unsafe

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop survivor’s guilt. Some factors can increase the risk and the severity of PTSD symptoms, including survivor’s guilt.

  • A history of trauma (childhood abuse)
  • Having other mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression)
  • A family history of psychiatric problems
  • Lack of support from friends or family
  • Alcohol or drug use
  • Their belief that they can predict or prevent an outcome
  • Their role in causing negative outcomes
  • Wrongdoing on their part

Some people with survivor’s guilt and other PTSD symptoms can recover without treatment within the first year following the traumatic event. However, one-third of them will continue to have PTSD symptoms for three years or longer. Here are some tips for coping with survivor’s guilt.

Accept and allow the feelings

Even though survivor’s guilt is not always rational, it is a common response to trauma. Accepting and allowing the feelings that surface, taking time to process the guilt, grief, fear, and loss that accompany the event can all help. If the feelings are overwhelming or do not begin to get more manageable over time, it is essential to seek out help.

Connect with others
Sharing your feelings with family and/or friends is a way to connect. If your loved ones do not understand your feelings, look for a support group. Face-to-face support groups and online communities can allow survivors to connect, express themselves, and ask questions.

Use Mindfulness Techniques
Mindfulness can be beneficial for those who have experienced trauma, especially during a flashback or during intense and painful emotions. Grounding techniques, such as having them focus on breathing, feeling nearby fabrics, and noticing inside and outside sounds, can help them become mindful.

Practice Self-Care
Loss and potential loss of life is frightening and overwhelming. Survivors can benefit from doing one or more of these activities such as:

  • Taking baths
  • Reading
  • Resting
  • Meditating
  • Journaling
  • Creating art
  • Listening to soothing music
  • Trying aromatherapy

It is also important for you to get enough sleep, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly.

Do something good for others
People who survive a traumatic event may feel better if they try to help others. They can do this by educating people about their experience, volunteering at a local charity, donating blood, making a charitable donation, lending support to others, or sending a care package to someone.

If you or your loved one continues to experience intense guilt, flashbacks, disturbing dreams, and other symptoms of PTSD, you should consider getting professional help by talking to a doctor or psychotherapist who specialized in trauma. Therapy is the primary treatment type for PTSD, but some more severe cases may also require medication. Traumatic events can increase the risk of suicide. If you or your loved one have thoughts of death, suicide, or have attempted suicide, you should seek immediate attention.