Going through a traumatic event or witnessing the loss of life can bring about difficult emotions, including grief, anger, shock and confusion. In the midst of all of these emotions, another common reaction to traumatic events is feelings of guilt.
If you’ve experienced guilt or regret after surviving a traumatic event, you aren’t alone.
According to the National Library of Medicine, survivor’s guilt is when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. You may ask yourself questions like – why did I escape death when others didn’t? Why didn’t I die along with them? What could I have done to prevent what happened?
If you’ve experienced guilt or regret after surviving a traumatic event, you aren’t alone. Many people suffer from survivor’s guilt. Learn about the symptoms, how you can learn to cope with your guilt and where to turn for help.
Symptoms and Signs of Survivor’s Guilt
Anyone can develop survivor’s guilt, but often it’s seen in Veterans, first responders, natural disaster survivors, crash survivors or those who have lost someone to suicide.
For Veterans, survivor’s guilt may develop as a result of something that happened during your Service. Maybe there was an injury to someone in your unit, a civilian death you weren’t able to prevent or a traumatic event you survived that the others around you didn’t.
You may also be at increased risk for developing survivor’s guilt if one of these conditions applies to you:
- A history of trauma, such as childhood abuse
- Other existing mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety
- A lack of support from family or friends
- Alcohol or drug use
- Low self-esteem
The severity of survivor’s guilt can vary from person to person and symptoms are not the same for everyone, but the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provides a list of physical and emotional symptoms that are common after surviving a traumatic event, including:
- Obsessive thoughts about the traumatic event
- Feelings of helplessness
- Lack of motivation or disinterest in things you usually care about
- Irritability or anger
- Problems sleeping such as insomnia or nightmares
- Health issues including stomachaches, headaches, appetite changes, a racing heart, body tension or pain
- Thoughts of suicide
- Social isolation
- Distorted beliefs about yourself or the world in general (it’s not safe, I’m never safe, I am a horrible person)
- Distorted beliefs about what you could have done to change the outcome of the event (I could have saved people, it’s all my fault, I could have stopped this from happening)
In many ways, these symptoms relate to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, many mental health professionals consider survivor’s guilt to be a symptom of PTSD. To learn about PTSD and whether you may be experiencing it, check out the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) resources on PTSD.
Tips for Coping with Survivor’s Guilt
If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms listed above, you may be able to use the coping strategies below to help yourself work through them. Check out the following tips:
- Accept your feelings. Remember, the emotions you’re experiencing are a common response to trauma. Take time to listen to all of your emotions and process your guilt, grief, anger and everything else you may be feeling. Let yourself mourn and grieve for what you’ve lost.
- Connect with others. Share your feelings with people you trust. Friends and family can offer support by listening and reminding you – as often as you need – that you aren’t to blame for the situation. You can also try joining a support group – either online or in person. This may allow you to connect with others who can relate, sympathize and understand your emotions. Check out VA’s peer support groups and the benefits of joining.
- Practice mindfulness and meditation. Being able to calm your mind and body during intense emotional feelings is an important skill you can use to help process traumatic events. VA offers information on mindfulness practices and you can check out Mindfulness and Meditation: An Easy Guide for Getting Started to learn more about how simple breathing exercises and meditation techniques can help you relax and decrease the intensity of your symptoms.
- Maintain healthy habits. To ensure you’re mentally and physically able to handle stress, be sure you’re getting enough sleep, finding time to move your body, and eating a healthy diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers several tips for taking care of your body in order to manage your stress.
- Take care of yourself. It’s important to remember that enjoying your life and finding moments of happiness does not take away from the grief or sadness you feel about the trauma you’ve experienced. It’s OK to do things that make you happy and relax you. In fact, it’s necessary. Read a book, take a walk, create a piece of art, listen to music or do another activity that makes you feel good.
- Do something for others. People who survive a traumatic event may feel better if they’re able to help others in some way. You could plan a way to honor those you lost, volunteer your time, donate blood at your local blood bank, make a donation to a charity, send someone a care package or practice simple acts of kindness each day. These moments of goodness may help relieve you of some of the guilt you feel.
- Seek help from a professional. If you’ve tried some of these coping mechanisms but continue to experience intense guilt or feelings of depression or anxiety, consider getting professional help. You may find that regular treatment, therapy or medication is needed to help you regain control of your emotions. VA offers a wide range of mental health resources. Find a support group, join group therapy, learn new coping strategies, explore the reasons behind your guilt and much more with someone who is trained to help.
Resources for Additional Help
- VA’s PTSD page includes self-help tools, treatment options, personal stories from Veterans and much more, including a section on Guilt, Shame and Forgiveness.
- Military OneSource offers a webinar on survivor’s guilt, how to work through it and how to know when it’s time to get additional support.
- Make the Connection offers personal stories from Veterans who have dealt with feelings of guilt, including survivor’s guilt, and strategies for coping.
- Health.mil has a video about four different ways to cope with survivor’s guilt.
- VA News shares the story of a Vietnam Veteran’s experience with overcoming PTSD and survivor’s guilt.
Give these coping strategies a try and take advantage of the resources designed to help, so you can find a way to work through your survivor’s guilt and begin to move forward.