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Understanding survivor’s guilt

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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.

How survivor’s guilt affects us

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. Melanie Kidd, Clinical Manager at 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.”

Signs you are experiencing survivor’s guilt

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:

  • Flashbacks or nightmares taking you back to the event
  • Having your mind consumed by thoughts about what happened
  • Having constant thoughts of not doing enough
  • Being irritable or angry
  • Having trouble moving past what happened

“You can view survivor’s guilt as PTSD plus guilt,” adds Kidd, “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.

Coping with survivor’s guilt

Like with other mental health challenges, there are healthy ways you can learn to cope.

  • Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Don’t just bottle up your feelings and avoid them – try to work through them and process them.
  • Exercise mindfulness. Take time to get grounded, focusing on positive truths about yourself rather than being consumed with regret.
  • Don’t isolate from others. Instead of avoiding others who you think might blame you for what happened, stay connected with people. Having this support will help you through your struggle.
  • Do something good. Oftentimes, putting good out into the world will help remove the burden of guilt. Give your time to a local organization that helps people in your community, and you will feel better about yourself while making a difference in the lives of others.
  • Seek professional help. A professionally trained therapist can help you through your mental health challenges. They will take it upon themselves to work and help you process your trauma however they can.

If you are struggling with survivor’s guilt or symptoms of PTSD, Centerstone is here to help. Call us at 1-877-HOPE123 (877-467-3123) or visit our counseling services page to learn more.

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