Survivor’s guilt sets in when an individual endures a traumatic experience or life or death event and believes they have done something wrong because others did not fare as well. According to Dara Bushman, a psychologist who treated students after the deadly Parkland, Florida 2018 mass shooting, survivors of tragedy often feel guilt for living through horrific experiences.
Bushman adds that survivor’s guilt is not limited to the aftermath of mass shootings. For example, this condition can manifest in practicing and/or recovering addicts and alcoholics when someone they know dies from an overdose. There are a multitude of other adverse situations in which survivor’s guilt can occur, including after a natural disaster, rape, terrorism, combat duty or murder. Sometimes organ transplant recipients have survivor’s guilt for surviving while their donor did not. Survivor’s guilt can even arise following the death by suicide of a loved one.
Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt
The symptoms of survivor’s guilt vary from one individual to another. Some of the signs and symptoms that someone with survivor’s guilt may experience are as follows:
- Having flashbacks
- Feeling numb or disconnected
- Being unmotivated
- Feeling irritable
- Having suicidal thoughts
- Feeling helpless
- Being fearful
- Disruption in eating or sleeping patterns
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Heart palpitations
Survivor’s guilt is a very real mental health issue and a normal response to loss. Not everyone who experiences a severe loss or extremely traumatic event experiences this condition. However, for those who do, survivor’s guilt can become chronic and have long term physical, emotional, and psychological effects.
The Manifestations of Survivor’s Guilt
Experts have outlined several scenarios in which survivor’s guilt manifests, including guilt around surviving and guilt over actions not taken. When survivors feel guilt over the fact that they did not die while someone else did, the experience is often characterized by thoughts such as, “That should have been me,” or, “I don’t deserve to be alive.” Such thoughts significantly affect how a person views their right to experience feelings associated with the event. Often, these individuals think that having survived means they should not feel sad in light of the fact that others have died. Unfortunately, such views can keep a person from seeking treatment for survivor’s guilt, as they may be resistant to acknowledging their feelings or talking about methods of coping.
On the other hand, some survivors feel guilt not for surviving, but for how they responded during a crisis. One example of this centers around the fear that they obstructed effective escape for others as a result of fleeing the life-threatening event themselves.
Similarly, some survivors experience guilt over what they didn’t do. This occurs when a person looks back and feels that they did not do enough to change or help the situation. Sometimes it manifests when a person feels responsible for the tragedy, which can in turn overwhelm their own healing process. For example, it is common for a survivor to worry that they missed potential red flags before a tragic event, and then ruminate on what they should have seen or known.
The Effects of Survivor’s Guilt
The effects of survivor’s guilt range in severity and duration. For instance, some individuals may encounter a few intrusive thoughts immediately following the event, which then subside over time. Yet others may find themselves unable to focus, concentrate, or adequately function as a result of both intrusive cognitions and debilitating feelings. In some cases, depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can manifest.
Are You or Someone You Know Suffering From Survivor’s Guilt?
Do you think that you or a loved one may be experiencing survivor’s guilt? If so, experts recommend the following coping methods:
- Give yourself time and space to grieve
- Be patient with yourself
- Consider thinking about who was really responsible, if anyone
- Remember to take care of yourself physically and psychologically
- Remind yourself that you were given the gift of survival and feel good about it
- Share your feelings with someone you trust
- If you can, be of service to someone or something
- Try to keep to a structured daily routine
- Consider journaling about your feelings
- Get professional help if needed
Remember that survivor’s guilt is common following extreme trauma and that it is treatable. If you or a loved one needs help coping with this condition, do not hesitate to consult with a medical professional.
Seeking Support for Survivor’s Guilt?
Survivor’s guilt is a condition that affects countless people globally. Unfortunately, if left untreated, it can become chronic and instigate additional mental health concerns, including substance use disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, there is a multitude of treatment options available to you, provided you are willing to accept help.
Starbent Recovery is a premier mental health and substance abuse treatment center, experienced in supporting recovery for those suffering from survivor’s guilt and co-occurring disorders. Our professional staff is dedicated to working with you towards a treatment plan that specifically addresses your unique goals. To learn more about the Starbent Recovery programs available to you, call us at (800) 673-0176.