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January 30, 2020
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Understanding and Dealing with Survivor’s Guilt

Understanding and Dealing with Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor's guilt is a psychological phenomenon that many first responders like soldiers, fire fighters, or police, and even average people, often experience after the death of a colleague or experiencing a traumatic event. Although survivor's guilt can manifest itself differently from one person to the next, it often involves feelings of remorse regarding survival, sadness, shock, and sometimes even a feeling of responsibility. Understanding how survivor's guilt develops, how to cope with it, and where to seek treatment are essential for overcoming this difficult syndrome. It is difficult for someone who has not experienced these kinds of emotions and events to understand that experience of those that suffer, as often the natural thought is that someone who survives a traumatic event would consider themselves lucky or fortunate.

What Is Survivor's Guilt?

Survivor's guilt (sometimes referred to as "survivor syndrome") refers to the psychological condition of someone who witnessed or was involved in a traumatic event that may have harmed co-workers or victims but left the affected individual relatively unscathed. The affected individual, however, is impacted by the often-crippling emotional scars that resulted from witnessing the traumatic event. Often, someone with survivor's guilt will question aloud or think to themselves, "Why not me?" or "What should I have done differently to prevent this?". The medical community often associates survivor's guilt as a serious symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious psychological condition that often plagues first responders.

Common symptoms of survivor’s guilt

Symptoms will vary between people, both in what specific symptoms they experience and the severity of the symptoms. Symptoms will also vary depending on the traumatic event they experienced. The most common symptoms of survivor’s guilt mimic those of PTSD and can include:
  • Mood swings and angry outbursts
  • Social problems
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Lack of motivation and depression
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, stomachache, etc.
  • Flashbacks
  • Obsessive thoughts
Symptoms may stem from, or be worsened by, someone’s past traumatic history including being abused as a child, depression, genetics, and substance abuse.

Coping with Survivor's Guilt

It's essential that someone suffering from survivor's guilt acknowledge that they are suffering. Survivor's guilt can affect daily life and job performance, and it's important to find ways to cope with this psychological problem before symptoms worsen. This often takes some time and can take even longer if sufferers do not get early care. Every individual struggles differently, some individuals’ symptoms improve significantly, or go away, within a year, while others will experience symptoms longer-term. Coping strategies for such a traumatic event will always require the help of family and friends. After acknowledging the problem, developing a strong support community is critical to long-term recovery and reducing the risk of relapse. Taking time to mourn the loss of those who perished in the event can be difficult, however it is often a large piece of the coping process. In a way, by accepting and embracing the trauma, the client can move forward. Along with the admission that there is a problem, clients and their families need to understand that substance abuse, including using drugs and alcohol, is not an appropriate coping mechanism and can have devastating effects on the coping process and eventual recovery. Getting quality treatment in the form of dual diagnosis care – a core part of the treatment program here at Destination Hope, is critical in moving forward.

Seeking Treatment for Survivor's Guilt

Since survivor's guilt is often associated with PTSD, it's essential to seek a professional psychiatric evaluation. While there isn't a magic pill or one type of therapy that can take away the emotional pain gripping someone with survivor's guilt, the first step is an evaluation that can provide a framework that allows clinicians to help the sufferer to work through the emotional crisis by employing strategies that may help them cope. Some cases may require anti-depressants or other pharmaceutical treatments to help, especially if anxiety or depression has set in. At times sufferers may have had a history of suicidal thoughts attempts, and will require additional specialized clinical attention. Ultimately, survivor’s guilt can be a combination of current trauma and the accumulation of past traumas that come back to the surface. Sometimes, the only way to cope with these persistent traumas and move forward in life is by employing professional help. It is extremely important that those who suffer, and their loves ones, understand that there is nothing wrong or shameful in doing so. Delaying seeking help only complicates the process and increases the risk of future relapses. If you or a loved one is suffering from survivor's guilt, set aside time to talk to a therapist so that genuine healing may begin. This article was originally published on 1/22/2016 date and updated on 1/30/2020

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