Survivor’s guilt is something that takes place when someone has gone through a traumatic event or even a loss of life. This could be due to the person surviving certain events, but sometimes these are ones others do not and that leads them to feel guilty. Those that did survive may question how they managed to be able to escape death, whilst others who suffered from the same lost theirs. Survivor’s guilt is commonly known more so now as a symptom of PTSD.

Who can suffer from Survivor’s guilt?

There are a variety of people that may suffer from Survivor’s guilt and these include anyone who works as a first responder, war veterans, natural disaster survivors, Holocaust Survivors, those who survived 9/11, survivors of traumatic events, cancer survivors, those who survived life-threatening illnesses, transplant recipients, those who survived a car crash, those who lost someone to suicide, parents who outlive their children and so many more.

Not everyone who falls into these categories may experience this particular type of guilt, but more often than not those who have been in these kinds of situations will feel some kind of guilt.

Symptoms of Survivor’s guilt

The type of guilt that the individual feels, may vary and it can affect them in different ways. But, most of the time they begin to feel this guilt because of the fact they managed to survive but others did not, what they might have done during that event and what they could have done.

However, when it comes to Survivor’s guilt, most of the symptoms do come from PTSD itself which can include flashbacks of any traumatic event they’ve been through, they may start to become irritable and angry, they may experience obsessive thoughts about that particular event, have headaches and trouble sleeping, lack of motivation, social isolation, feeling helpless and disconnected from the world, feeling like no one understands and they may begin to have suicidal thoughts. Those who suffer from PTSD and then later begin to feel the feelings of survivor’s guilt may cause the individual to not feel safe.

shallow focus of a woman's sad eyes

Causes

With survivor’s guilt, it comes from those who have experienced a traumatic event, but that’s not to say that just because you go through that type of situation you will feel guilt. Sometimes, the guilt stems from a history of trauma, having other mental health issues which may include depression and anxiety, not having the right support or even alcohol and drug misuse.

When an individual is experiencing survivor’s guilt they might start to think of themselves as someone who could have done something or prevented it. But, then when they realise that’s not always the case, they will then start to feel guilty. They may feel like they in a way can predict the outcome or end up actually prevented it from happening.

Living with survivor’s guilt

Those that suffer from survivor’s guilt and other common signs of PTSD most likely will respond to treatment well and recover within the first year of the event happening. Whilst everybody responds to treatment differently, or some people may not be ready to reach out and get help. There are a few ways that the individual who is suffering can help themselves feel a little better. However, it is very important to get professional help if the thoughts do stem out of control and it does get too much to cope with.

It may help to be able to accept the feelings and allow them to enter your mind, as hard as it is and as much as you’re probably trying to avoid them. But, actually having that guilt is a response that many feel after something traumatic has happened. You must allow yourself some time to be able to process the guilt properly, not overwhelm yourself and never go to hard on yourself. It may help to be able to connect with others, definitely make it people you trust and that you feel comfortable talking too. Share your feelings with them, if you feel like you don’t have that support then be sure to reach out to a support group, helpline or any other professional as there’s always someone who wants to help you even if you feel like there is no one.

Practising self-care is another one, that isn’t stressed enough it works wonders with pretty much anything and it doesn’t only help your mind but your body too. It distracts you, it gives you something to focus on for a little while and just let yourself unwind. Have a nice bubble bath, read your favourite book, simply just rest, paint a picture, draw, listen to music that makes you smile, play an instrument, meditate, get outside, have a movie marathon. Do things that make you happy, that take your mind of everything just for a little bit to enable you to feel better.

Practise mindfulness, this can be very beneficial for those who have gone through trauma and it’s good for when them flashbacks of the intense painful emotions come flooding in. Some of the mindfulness techniques could include being in touch with your mind and body and understanding how you’re feeling, trying to push aside that negative self-talk, focusing on breathing, listening out for certain sounds and focusing on a specific spot wherever you’re.

It’s also best to get enough sleep, have a balanced diet, exercise regularly, even if that’s just going out for a nice walk. Avoid drugs and alcohol at all costs, these make the symptoms so much worse and can make the individual feel even lower. Another great form of self-care, that many benefit from is helping others, perhaps talking to others about your experience, giving advice, volunteering at a local charity, donating blood, sending a care package to someone else, volunteering at a soup kitchen, helping carry someones shopping home, things like that. Making there day, but also making you feel good in yourself.

person standing beside seashore

Treatment 

It’s important that if you feel like your symptoms are not getting any better and it’s affecting your daily life. That you reach out and get help, that you get the right treatment. Most likely the first step will be an evaluation to be able to ensure that it is that you’re suffering with. This can then find ways in which the professional themselves can find you ways to be able to cope. For those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts, they may need extra care and clinical attention. This will help build your mental state up again, and help you live your life without the constant worries or feelings of the guilt. Not only that but if you get help early on it can prevent it from getting worse especially if there are other PTSD symptoms occurring.

More often than not a type of therapy, called cognitive behavioural therapy will take place, it is one that is most commonly used and has proven to be very effective. Throughout the process of CBT, the individual will work alongside a therapist who will then help then find ways to be able to find negative thoughts and what’s triggering them. Taking them negative thoughts away and replacing them with positive ones which can then help alleviate feelings of guilt.

Not only that, but medication for example antidepressants may be prescribed where needed, group therapy, support groups may also be a great way of working through your survivor’s guilt. Never go through it alone, as it can eat its way at you and it’s important to get help as soon as you can. It’s hard to have to go through a traumatic event in the first place, but then having to deal with survivor’s guilt as well as PTSD, can be very difficult for some. Which is why you must speak to someone you trust or a professional to ensure you get the right help.

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