You may have heard the term survivor’s guilt and wondered exactly what the phrase means. At its most basic, survivor’s guilt is a mental health condition that can occur after one has experienced a major, upsetting, tragic event and lived through it while others did not. Here we’ll take a look at the phenomenon as well as how to manage it or help others cope with survivor’s guilt. Researchers began to write about survivor’s guilt in the 1960s as experts noticed that a cluster of similar symptoms occurred among those who had survived tragic events. Such events consist of a range of catastrophic occurrences, including natural disasters, mass shootings, combat duty, airplane crashes, terrorist attacks, and even large-scale job layoffs.
The Root of the Issue
Experts have identified a host of smaller-scale situations in which survivor’s guilt can also take place. These include a loved one’s suicide, someone with an addiction losing someone to an overdose, witnessing a murder and following a life-saving organ transplant. According to Victor Schwartz, professor of psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine, the theory of survivor’s guilt has its roots in the self-reported record of Holocaust survivors. “It was noticed that many people who lost numerous friends and family members were plagued by the question of why had they survived,” said Schwartz, noting that survivor’s guilt can, “add to risk for self-destructive behaviors and suicide.”
Survivor’s guilt is associated with mental health conditions like major depressive disorder, substance use disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Nonetheless, with proper treatment and support, the vast majority of such individuals work through the trauma to resume a normal life (Breggin, P. R., Guilt, Shame, and Anxiety: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Emotions).
The chief symptoms of survivor’s guilt (regardless of what tragedy has touched the lives of a survivor) are common to those experienced after other traumatic situations. These signs and symptoms include feelings of helplessness, flashbacks, changes in eating or sleeping habits, irritability, feeling numb or disconnected, fatigue, headaches, lack of motivation and/or interest in activities once enjoyed, nightmares and chronic preoccupation with the trauma. While this condition is well-documented, it remains an under-discussed topic even though it is not a rare occurrence among those who have experienced trauma. Evidence shows that survivor reactions occur on a spectrum from mild to severe. Some survivors report experiencing a few disturbing thoughts right after the event but which subside over time. On the other end of the continuum, others may not be able to shake a destructive, debilitating set of beliefs which then leads to impaired functioning.
What are the signs and symptoms to be aware of with survivor’s guilt? Here is a list of some of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors possible:
- Feeling helpless
- Having flashbacks
- Intense sense of fear or dread
- Difficulty sleeping
- Lack of motivation
- Feeling irritable
- Feeling numb and/or disconnected
- Physical symptoms, e.g. stomachaches, headaches, and racing heart
- Suicidal thoughts
If you or someone you know is experiencing survivor’s guilt, do not hesitate to seek professional help. The vast majority of people will process and move through survivor’s guilt with the right support and treatment.
How to Cope With Survivors Guilt
In addition to seeking professional help, there are some practical steps you can take to begin to heal from the trauma of survivor’s guilt. First off, experts stress the importance of being patient with one’s self. Dealing with grief and trauma is a process that is different for everyone and understanding that there can be setbacks along the way will help you on your journey toward healing. Next, it’s crucial to accept what you’re feeling, whether it be guilt, anger or shame. It’s common for some individuals to think they don’t have the right to be upset because their reality could have been worse. Likewise, it’s also common for survivors to feel as if they should not be thankful for their outcome. In either case, know that grief can coexist with gratitude and that desiring a better outcome for yourself is normal.
It will also help the grieving process to know that you are not alone. Survivor’s guilt is a real phenomenon and to be expected after a tragic event in which you survived while others did not. Maintaining a sense of normalcy as much as possible can also help one to recover. This includes staying within your usual routines, such as eating and sleeping at the same time and maintaining a hobby, especially a healthy form of exercise. Finally, understanding that the circumstances of the traumatic event were not your fault is key to recovery.
It’s not uncommon for survivors to think that they could have controlled a tragic event nor is it rare for them to feel responsible for a tragedy. This way of thinking isn’t realistic and it’s important to remember that not only was the situation not predictable, but it also was not your, or your loved ones, fault. Anyone who is experiencing survivor’s guilt should recognize that it’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help and do so immediately.
Lifelong recovery is possible: all you need to do is reach out. Starbent Recovery was founded on the belief that people suffering from addictive disorders, trauma, and other co-occurring issues can thrive in the right environment. Our professional, dedicated staff have the understanding, experience, and compassion necessary to support each resident’s clinical treatment team goals. We offer individualized tier level programs and guidance with residents’ personal recovery and independent living goals. Our safe, peer residence offers luxury amenities and is located in the heart of upscale Tribeca close to multiple subway lines and surrounded by trendy dining and shopping. To learn more about our premier women’s recovery residence, call us at (800) 673-0176.