Understanding and Dealing with Survivor’s Guilt

Losing someone is hard. Whether from natural causes or an accident, outliving someone brings some emotions that seem unbearable. Survivor’s guilt is a psychological phenomenon that many first responders – soldiers, firefighters, police – and even average people may experience after the death of someone near them or after experiencing a traumatic event.

Although survivor’s guilt can manifest itself differently from one person to the next, it often involves feelings of 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 is essential for overcoming this difficult syndrome.

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, “Why not me?” or “What should I have done differently?”. Survivor’s guilt is often classified as a serious symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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:

  • Guilt for surviving when others did not
  • Obsessive over analysis of their actions during the event
  • Mood swings and angry outbursts
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Social problems or isolation
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of motivation and depression
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, stomachache, etc.
  • Flashbacks

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 indeed suffering. Survivor’s guilt can affect daily life and job performance, and it’s important to find ways to cope before symptoms worsen. This often takes 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 and support 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 an important piece of the coping process. In a way, by accepting and embracing the trauma, they 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 recovery process. Getting quality treatment in the form of dual diagnosis care – a core part of the treatment program here at the Mental Health Center, 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 professional evaluation. While there isn’t a magic pill or one type of therapy that can take away the emotional pain, the first step is to employ 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 a history of suicidal thoughts or 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. The Mental Health Center at Destination Hope provides specialized, patient-focused programs to guide you to manage your conditions and live a happier and healthier life.

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