Survivor’s guilt is a response to an event in which someone else experienced loss but you did not. While the name implies this to be a response to the loss of life, it could also be the loss of property, health, identity or a number of other things that are important to people.
This event can range from minor, such as a friend breaking their wrist while you are both skiing, to major, such as a plane crash that takes the lives of others but leaves you alive. Traumatic events like the latter can lead to more severe guilty feelings and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other events that can lead to survivor’s guilt include mass shootings, car accidents, natural disasters, military service and life-changing events such as 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
When you get through a traumatic event unscathed while others suffer, you likely will have one question on repeat: “Why (not) me?” Even though you were not the one most directly affected by the situation, it can still haunt you and leave you confused. You may even feel that you are undeserving of being spared when others suffered.
A common response to such an occurrence is feeling responsible for what happened, asking yourself what how you could have possibly changed things. Julie Bailey, Clinical Manager for Centerstone, says, “Someone experiencing survivor’s guilt will often use the words, ‘If only I…’ when thinking about the situation. But in most cases, the situation was out of your control – it wasn’t your fault.”
Survivor’s guilt can actually be a symptom of PTSD, and the signs are quite similar. Signs that you are experiencing survivor’s guilt include:
“You can view survivor’s guilt as PTSD plus guilt,” says Julie Bailey. “The event haunts you similarly to PTSD with regret layered on top.”
Survivor’s guilt can lead to other mental health challenges aside from PTSD, including depression, anxiety and substance use disorder as a result of unhealthy coping. It can also lead to withdrawal from, and eventual damage to, relationships. This happens when you assume other people blame you for what happened the same way you do.
Like with other mental health challenges, there are healthy ways you can learn to cope.
If you are struggling with survivor’s guilt or any other mental health challenge, Centerstone is here to help. Call us at 1-877-HOPE123 (877-467-3123) or visit centerstone.org/connect-with-us/ to get connected with care.
If you are in crisis, please call our crisis line, call 911 or visit the nearest emergency room.
If you're still having trouble and would like to reach out to someone about counseling or other Centerstone services, contact us.
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