Survivors guilt occurs after a traumatic event, such as a disaster, accident, combat, or other life-threatening situation. Some people may experience survivor’s guilt because they survived the incident, avoided major injury, or had limited or no property damage while others did not.
Survivor’s guilt can manifest in a variety of ways, such as:
- Persistent guilt. Feeling responsible for the circumstances that led to others’ suffering or death, even when you had no control over the situation.
- Questioning worthiness. Wondering why you survived while others did not.
- Emotional distress. Experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, or sadness.
- Flashbacks and nightmares. Reliving the traumatic event in dreams or during waking hours.
- Avoidance behaviors. Trying to distance yourself from situations or places that trigger guilt.
- Physical symptoms. Experiencing physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, and fatigue.
Whether someone experiences survivor’s guilt is influenced by a variety of factors, including:
- Empathy. Strong feelings of empathy towards the suffering of others may intensify guilt.
- Unresolved trauma. Pre-existing unresolved trauma may amplify survivor’s guilt.
- Sense of unfairness. Perceiving the situation as unjust or unfair can heighten guilt.
- Perceived control. Believing that you had some control over the outcome may lead to feeling responsible for others’ fates.
- Cultural and social factors. Cultural or societal expectations about responsibility and morality may contribute to survivor’s guilt.
- Managing survivor’s guilt can be challenging. The following strategies may help:
- Seek support. Talk to friends, family, or a mental health professional.
- Self-compassion. Acknowledge that you cannot control all outcomes.
- Acceptance. Recognize that survival is not a betrayal of those who didn’t make it and acknowledge your right to live and heal.
- Honoring memories. Find ways to honor the memory of those who were lost, such as contributing to causes they cared about.
- Mindfulness and relaxation. Manage distressing thoughts and emotions by engaging in relaxation techniques, meditation, or mindfulness practices.
When to ask for help:
- If your life, work, or relationships are being disrupted
- If feelings seem overwhelming and you can’t find a way to express them
- If you aren’t sure if the way you are reacting is “normal”
- If you are using alcohol or other drugs to cope