Survivor’s guilt, commonly associated with PTSD, is when a person feels guilty because they survived a life-threatening event that others did not survive. When misfortune strikes us, and we remain unscathed, we may be grateful. However, we also may feel a sense of guilt, questioning, “Why not me?” The individual feels as if their survival is due to them doing something wrong and that somehow they should have prevented the tragedy from occurring. Plane crashes or deaths among military personnel while deployed are common triggers for survivor’s guilt, but it can also be experienced as a result of other less apparent occurrences.
International students from war-torn countries, gaining an education in a safe place such as the United States, may feel as if they don’t deserve the privilege of safety while their families are in danger at home. This situation can create immense inner turmoil and subsequent survivor’s guilt. Support groups for terminally ill individuals may also spark this phenomenon. When a member of the group passes away, others might ask, “Why are we still here? What makes us so lucky to live?” An individual dealing with the death of a family member from suicide may blame themselves and wonder, “Could I have stopped this from happening?” Usually, these questions only perpetuate guilt and shame, since there are no logical, clear-cut answers.
The Three General Themes of Survivor’s Guilt
- You may have guilt about surviving. If you remained safe and sound while other people suffered, you might feel as if you did not deserve it and harm should have come to you as well. This theme makes one question the fairness of the world.
- You may experience guilt over what you “should” have done and regret that you didn’t do enough to stop the tragedy from occurring. You feel as if you should have tried harder to avoid or fix the situation. If you tried to save someone but were unsuccessful, the guilt can build-up due to feelings of failure.
- You may have guilt over what you did. You may feel guilty for practicing self-preservation, such as pushing people out of the way to run from an impending disaster. Similarly, you may feel guilty for experiencing the opportunity to seek safety and refuge when your loved ones are in danger.
Signs of survivor’s guilt include feeling unworthy, confused, or even hesitant about continuing to live. Self-blame and isolation occur. Avoidance is a common theme for those suffering from survivor’s guilt. These are all dangerous emotions and behaviors that often lead to self-medication with drugs and/or alcohol. Unfortunately, this drug and/or alcohol use can result in addiction. Learning how to deal with survivor’s guilt in a healthy way is imperative to avoid developing unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Six Strategies Used to Handle Survivor’s Guilt
- Ask yourself who is truly responsible for the event. When you are feeling guilty, try to remind yourself who, if anyone, is actually to blame. Many times, tragedies occur due to forces out of our control. In the event of natural disasters, like earthquakes, tornados, and tsunamis, nothing and no one could have predicted or prepared for the event. Do not take the blame for the loss; instead, mourn those who were affected and recognize you were not responsible.
- Remind yourself that you can handle the loss and the sadness associated with that loss. Everyone grieves in personal ways. Feeling grief is an important part of recovering from a loss. Focusing on guilt instead of grief may worsen emotional and psychological health over time. Not moving on is a dangerous way to deal with tragedy and can be a contributing factor to subsequent drug and/or alcohol use.
- Think about your family and friends who love you and how they feel about your survival. Remind yourself of those who would be devastated if they lost you and how relieved and grateful those people are that you survived. Practice seeing your survival as a gift and share it with your loved ones.
- Luck is random. Just because you experienced good luck while someone else experienced misfortune does not mean it was your fault.
- Do something for someone else that is impactful and significant. Guilt may be a guiding factor in improving our lives. Using guilt as a tool to honor those who were lost can create a sense of purpose and direction.
- Practice self-care. If you have survived a tragic event, you must take care of yourself, both emotionally and physically. Self-care, such as sleeping and eating well, exercise, seeking and accepting support, and asking for help are all essential to healing.
Feeling Guilty and Looking for Help?
Survivor’s guilt is misplaced blame. Although guilt can motivate us to change, it can also trigger us to engage in unhealthy coping behaviors. Drinking and/or using drugs to numb the pain only suppresses that which needs to be released and healed. Self-care is crucial for battling negative emotions, and possible subsequent addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. At Fort Behavioral Health, we offer a safe and nurturing space to navigate negative emotions and practice coping skills that will support you in your recovery journey. If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, call us today at 844.332.1807.