Do You Suffer From Survivor’s Guilt?
By: Darby Faubion
Updated October 21, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers
The world today is full of news about various catastrophic experiences and events. From natural disasters to intense violence, many of these events have no logical explanation for why one person survived and another didn't. If you lived through one of these events, you might be wondering, "Why did I live and that person didn't?" Those who live through these events often suffer from survivor's guilt.
Survivor's guilt is defined as "feelings of guilt or turmoil after having survived a catastrophe that caused the death or serious injury of others." Initially, survivor's guilt was considered a stand-alone diagnosis. Today, however, it is classified under post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD). Contrary to popular opinion, not everyone who experiences survivor's guilt is diagnosed with PTSD.
If you have experienced a traumatic event and have feelings of guilt or conflict after surviving, you are not alone. In fact, survivor's guilt affects many individuals on different levels. Some research suggests that most people with survivor's guilt recover within the first year after the traumatic event, without having to seek outside treatment. However, there are times when outside help is needed. We'll discuss all these options later on in this article.
Who May Experience Survivor's Guilt?
People who may experience survivor's guilt include, but are not limited to:
- Emergency/First Responders - Individuals who respond to emergencies are often plagued with guilt when victims do not survive. Although most people understand that there is no way to save every person, first responders often feel guilt when someone they have tried to help dies.
- Transplant Recipients - While people on a transplant list know that, in most cases, the organ they will receive will come from a deceased person, it becomes "real" when the transplant takes place. These individuals often feel guilt in knowing that their chance to live is the result of someone else's death.
- Witnesses to a Traumatic Event (murder, suicide, natural disaster) - When a traumatic event occurs, the initial response of most people is shock. However, once the event has ended and the danger has subsided, the feeling of shock may be replaced by guilt for those who escaped the tragedy.
- Parents who outlive their children - It's a common saying that "parents shouldn't bury their children." When we become parents, we have dreams of watching our children as they grow into adulthood and enjoy their lives. When circumstances occur that result in the untimely death of a child, it may cause feelings of guilt. These parents often struggle through the grief process and feel guilty because they are still alive while their child's life was "cut short."
- War veterans - From the beginning of training, soldiers are taught, "no man left behind." While casualties of war are expected, it does not mean that it is something easy to accept. Many war veterans return home and feel extreme guilt because they survived and their comrades did not. Survivor's guilt among war veterans is not exclusive to the loss of friends and fellow servicemen and women. Taking a human life is not normal behavior. In times of war, soldiers may be required to take someone else's life to protect their own. Despite the circumstances, many veterans have a difficult time adjusting after they experience this.
- People who have survived a terminal diagnosis - Being diagnosed with a terminal illness is a frightening thing. The only people who understand what it truly feels like are those who have experienced the same. Many patients who are being treated for a terminal illness, such as cancer, get to know others who have been diagnosed with similar diseases. Some go through treatments at the same time and offer each other encouragement. When one person survives and another does not, the survivor often feels guilty and questions their own existence.
Symptoms of Survivor's Guilt
Survivor's guilt can cause several symptoms. While individuals experience it differently, one thing that is common is a feeling of dread or doom associated with being the one who survived.
Common symptoms associated with survivor's guilt include:
- Obsessive thoughts about the event
- Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Lack of motivation
- Difficulty sleeping
- Unexplained nausea or stomach aches
- Flashbacks of the event
- Social isolation
Moving Forward from Survivor's Guilt
There are several tips for dealing with survivor's guilt. By implementing these tips, you may see a decrease in symptoms. However, if symptoms persist or become more intense, consider reaching out for professional help.
Do something good for others. Survivor's guilt is often associated with the regret of being unable to help someone who was harmed or died. Doing good things for others can have a positive impact on both you and the recipient of your good deed. You don't have to make some giant financial contribution or put yourself under strain. Simply making calls to check on people who are shut-ins, visiting with the elderly, or volunteering at a local event can be a great way to do good for others.
"Wanting to handle the stress of survivor's guilt (or any other stress) on your own is not a bad thing. However, if you are overwhelmed or symptoms worsen, it is important to seek professional help. Counselors and therapists are trained to recognize emotional distress and can help you learn effective coping mechanisms."
Connect with others. Talking with others about your feelings allows you to acknowledge what you went through and is helpful in processing your response. Talk to friends or loved ones, if they are understanding. If they are not supportive or find it difficult to understand your feelings, seek out local support groups that deal with trauma and stress-related incidents. If you are not yet comfortable talking face-to-face with others, there are online communities that allow members to ask questions and share their experiences.
Accept your own feelings. Survivor's guilt has a way of affecting an individual's outlook on every aspect of their life. Even if others don't see your guilt as a rational response, it is a normal response to some traumatic events. Take time to process your feelings. There are several emotions including grief, fear, and loss that accompany the guilt associated with a traumatic event or death. Remember, any time you feel like your feelings are overwhelming, seek help from a professional.
Take Care of Yourself! People who experience survivor's guilt often tend to neglect their own care. It may be related to the anxiety or depression that follows trauma. It may also be linked to an unsubstantiated thought pattern that leaves one to believe that they are unworthy of any special care. This is not true. Self-care is very important, especially during times of emotional difficulties. Eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of rest, and try to meditate or journal. All of these things are ways to care for yourself and begin creating balance in your life once again.
When Is It Time to Get Help?
Wanting to handle the stress of survivor's guilt (or any other stress) on your own is not a bad thing. However, if you are overwhelmed or symptoms worsen, it is important to seek professional help. Counselors and therapists are trained to recognize emotional distress and can help you learn effective coping mechanisms.
With increased awareness about mental health and wellness, the availability of resources for care is on the rise. There are many options to choose from when it comes to choosing a path of wellness. There are in-house counseling centers that are part of larger health care corporations, private counseling centers, support groups, and online counseling options. Research shows that online therapy can play a powerful role in helping people process and recover from past trauma.
For some, the decision of which resource to use is easy. Others may need to research different options to find the best fit. If you are comfortable meeting with someone in a private setting and talking in person, seeking out a counseling center or private therapist may be the best option for you. If you prefer to be part of a group so that you don't feel singled out, a support group is a great way to go. On the other hand, if you prefer more privacy and desire to have more control over when and where you talk with someone, online counseling is a great way to get the help you need.
Online counseling, such as that offered by BetterHelp, is aimed at giving clients the help necessary to overcome troubling life circumstances while maintaining a sense of personal control of how and when their therapy occurs. At BetterHelp, our staff of licensed and experienced counselors, social workers, and doctors will work with you to create a plan of care specific to your needs. Read below for some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing similar issue.s
"Rebecca has helped me talk about very personal things I have pushed aside for years, in doing so I've opened up and have had realisations about past experiences and has lifted guilt off me."
"When I first contacted BetterHelp, my brain was like a hamster on a wheel. Ashley Santana helped me identify the problems with control and guilt that really had me stuck. She reassured me that some of my feelings were valid and even normal. I feel lighter, more comfortable, and confident now. I sincerely recommend this counseling to everyone."
It's not uncommon for individuals to have questions or feel guilt after experiencing a traumatic event. The shock of these types of experiences can often feel debilitating. There are measures you can take to address the guilt and to begin living a life that is guilt-free. Help is available. Take the first step today.