Survivor’s Guilt: What Is It and How to Cope

By To Write Love on Her ArmsApril 20, 2021

Are you a war vet? A first responder? These are the professions and roles that tend to come to mind when discussing those experiencing survivor’s guilt. While accurate, they do not encompass the full picture. Those living with survivor’s guilt can include transplant recipients, survivors of traumatic experiences, such as 9/11, and those who’ve lost someone to suicide.

 

What is Survivor’s Guilt? 

Very Well Mind states, “In the current version of the diagnostic manual, the DSM-5, survivor’s guilt is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” However, it’s important to clarify that you can experience PTSD without feeling survivor’s guilt and one can have survivor’s guilt without PTSD.

Kendra Cherry, in her article for Very Well Mind, further explains, “While survivor’s guilt was originally used to describe feelings that survivors of the Holocaust experienced, it has also been applied to a number of life-threatening situations, including car accidents, wars, and natural disasters.” The manifestation of survivor’s guilt can look different for each person, but the most notable symptoms include feelings of sadness, shock, remorse for having survived, flashbacks, and even feelings of responsibility. Physical symptoms can also develop, such as chronic headaches, stomachaches, and/or changes in eating and sleeping patterns.

We want to take a second to pause and say: If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of survivor’s guilt, know that you are not alone. Feelings of responsibility or thoughts questioning why you survived when others didn’t are not unusual. This is one part of your story. This does not define who you are and this does not make you unworthy of love and joy and light.

With that said, if you are living with trauma and not undergoing feelings of survivor’s guilt, that is 100% OK. Feelings are not facts and we don’t control how our bodies respond to hardship.

 

Causes of Survivor’s Guilt 

Those who’ve survived a near-death experience or battled cancer may ask themselves: Why did I survive? How come I got so lucky? Where those processing the death of a loved one by suicide might experience feelings of blame and question: Could I have done anything to stop this from happening? 

A 2018 study involving participants in the UK seeking treatment for PTSD symptoms after surviving a traumatic event found that 90% reported experiencing feelings of guilt from having survived. Further studies reported by Medical News Today found that additional factors may increase a person’s risk of developing survivor’s guilt post a traumatic event. These experiences include a history of depression and/or trauma, lack of social support, feelings of low self-esteem, and coping mechanisms rooted in behavioral avoidance strategies.

Our friend Audrey shared her experience living with survivor’s guilt and some of the realizations she’s made.

“Amidst the turmoil of grief and shame we often lose sight of the fundamental truth that we have not only a right, but a duty, to be alive. Our thoughts would love to convince us that survivor’s guilt is some sort of currency we owe to those who have passed on. As someone who has always struggled with guilt and shame, I embraced this lie as my truth. The thing is, however, no matter how frustrated or guilty one feels for continuing to exist, it does not redeem the lives lost.”

 

How To Cope With Survivor’s Guilt

Just like Audrey, you may be experiencing feelings of guilt and shame for having survived. You may hold fear that pushes you towards isolation, and some difficult questions with impossible answers may be swimming through your mind. But it is crucial to note that none of these developments make you unworthy of living.

Survivor’s guilt and other elements of PTSD can be treated. Having lived through trauma does not mean hope no longer exists or that healing is impossible.

The Mental Health Center suggests, “After acknowledging the problem [coming to terms with your diagnosis], developing a strong support community is critical to long-term recovery and reducing the risk of relapse.” While a decrease in symptoms within one to three years is commonly reported by those seeking treatment for their diagnosis of survivor’s guilt, there is no definitive timeline for recovery.

Some tips for processing grief and moving through the trauma connected to survivor’s guilt include accepting the feelings you may be having and giving them time to pass. You can also connect with others—we believe people need other people and the heavy feelings do not have to be held by you and you alone.

Along with those tips, there are resources available. You can reach out to Trauma Survivors Network, a community of patients and survivors looking to connect with one another and rebuild their lives after a serious injury, as well as the Trauma Center at Justice Institute. Crisis Text Line Counselors can also be reached 24/7 by texting TWLOHA to 741741; their services are free and confidential.

For longer-term care, we recommend connecting to a local counselor. You can use our FIND HELP Tool to search by zip code for affordable, local options.

As you continue on your journey, Fort Behavioral Health lists six strategies for processing your guilt and provides a helpline you can use for additional resources and support.

Lastly, shame and guilt can lead us to isolate ourselves. We want you to know that you are not alone. Your story matters. Together, we can find help and hope amongst the heaviness.

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