In this article, we will discuss survivor’s guilt, what it is, and potential treatments that can help those experiencing it.
Though survivor’s guilt has always existed in some form, the term itself was used to describe the feelings of those who had survived the holocaust during World War Two. It refers to the complex range of emotions experienced by people who have survived a severe accident, attack, natural disaster, or illness where others have died. It is often found among armed forces veterans who have served on active duty.
Those with survivor’s guilt cannot explain why they have survived while others haven’t. They might not feel worthy or despair at the situation’s unfairness. If you’ve been in an accident or an attack where a loved one has died, the condition can feel even more intense as you may feel as though you should have died instead of them.
Rather than being a disorder, survivor’s guilt may be categorized as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but these are not mutually exclusive. PTSD is often treated with talking therapies, EMDR, and self EMDR in addition to any recommended medication.
Symptoms of Survivors’ Guilt
The severity of the symptoms that come with survivor’s guilt are wide and affect people to a greater or lesser extent and can manifest as both mental and physical signs, including:
- Intrusive thoughts of the event or situation
- Feeling unworthy
- Feeling helpless
- Mood swings
- Suicidal ideation
Physical symptoms include:
- Changes in eating habits
Survivors’ guilt can leave you with complex feelings about yourself and others. For example, you might obsess over the event, convincing yourself that you were to blame or that you should have been able to influence the outcome.
If you’ve survived a serious illness, you might feel like you weren’t worthy and that much better people than you who died should have lived.
Even if you’re usually a well-balanced person who can put things into perspective, survivor’s guilt can cause you to question everything about yourself and the world. You might even blame yourself for it happening, even if there was no way for you to have influenced or prevented events.
Who Can Develop Survivor’s Guilt?
Anyone can experience survivor’s guilt after an accident or illness. It depends on the circumstances and severity of the situation and your mental state. Researchers have linked the development of survivor’s guilt to a person’s ‘locus of control.’ This describes how much control over their lives people believe they have. If you don’t believe that things are ‘just meant to be’ or beyond your control, you might find it easier to accept the situation.
If you believe that all circumstances and situations can be anticipated and controlled, then you might be more inclined to blame yourself.
Other indicators could include:
- Previous history of trauma or experience or a similar situation (with or without PTSD)
- Poor self-image and low self-esteem
- Existing mental health conditions such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Poor access to mental health support
- Lack of social network and support
Treatment for Survivors’ Guilt
Those experiencing this condition can have serious mental health issues, affecting all aspects of their lives. It is often also accompanied by PTSD and other parts of psychological and physical trauma.
Any treatment plan must consider all of these factors to be effective. A mental health professional can use a range of treatments, including:
Individual or group therapy sessions include other people who have survived similar situations.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can be used to identify negative thought patterns and learn to replace them with others to change thought patterns and assess the situation realistically.
In some situations, your doctor might feel you would benefit from taking certain medications such as anti-depressants or sleep aids to help with insomnia. This can be done alongside other types of treatment and therapy, and it may take a combination of treatments to help put you on the track to recovery.
Surviving an accident, illness, or traumatic event is liable to make anyone feel guilt or ‘why me?’ thoughts. For many people, these thoughts eventually go away or are manageable, but for some, they can affect the quality of life and leave a lasting mark on your mental health and well-being, which is why it’s essential to seek help as soon as you can.