Understanding Survivor's Guilt

Woman feeling guilt

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In This Article

Survivor’s guilt is a type of self-guilt that sometimes takes place after a traumatic event. People may feel guilty for surviving or avoiding some type of harm when others did not. This phenomenon can occur in a variety of life-threatening situations including car accidents, wars, natural disasters, and illnesses.

What Is Survivor’s Guilt?

After a life-threatening or traumatic event, some people count themselves as fortunate while others are struck with a sense of guilt. Survivors may find themselves wondering why they lived through the event or why they suffered less than others.

Survivors of plane crashes or car accidents, for example, might feel guilty for living through the event while others lost their lives.

The concept of survivor's guilt achieved prominence during the 1960s as a number of psychologists described a similar set of symptoms experienced by survivors of the Holocaust. Since that time, it has been observed across a range of situations.

Common Causes

  • Surviving an accident

  • Surviving a natural disaster

  • Surviving or escaping war

Other Possible Causes

  • Recovering from a potentially fatal illness

  • Receiving an organ transplant

  • After a mass shooting

  • Not being present when a loved one dies

There are times when guilt may have a legitimate cause (such as causing an accident that led to another person’s death or injury), but in a lot of these instances, there is little or nothing that a person could do to prevent or change the outcome.

In an article published in Advances in Nursing Science, authors Hutson, Hall, and Pack noted that while survivor's guilt has appeared in psychology and medical literature, the phenomenon itself remains poorly defined and rarely described.

Survivor's guilt can have a serious impact on a person’s life and functioning, suggesting that further research is needed to explore effective ways to help people deal with feelings of guilt.

Is Survivor’s Guilt a Disorder?

In the current version of the diagnostic tool, the DSM-5, survivor's guilt is a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It may be viewed as one of the cognitive and mood-related symptoms of PTSD, which include having distorted feelings of guilt and negative thoughts about oneself.

It is important to note, however, that people can experience survivor’s guilt without having PTSD. They can also have PTSD without feeling survivor’s guilt.

Examples

While survivor's guilt was originally used to describe feelings that survivor's of the Holocaust experienced, it has also been applied to a number of people and situations since that time.

Individual’s who lived through the AIDS epidemic have described feelings of guilt related to their own survival while others, including friends or family, died.

Survivor’s of other illness may also feel a sense of guilt when they recover, but other friends and acquaintances do not.

Following a flood or tornado, people might feel a sense of guilt and wonder why their homes were spared while their next-door neighbor’s home was destroyed.

Survivor’s guilt does not necessarily have to involve life or death situations. For example, workers may feel a sense of guilt when others in the company are fired or laid off. This can be particularly pronounced during mass layoffs when large numbers of workers lose their jobs while a few retain their positions. Those who are left might feel that they were spared simply out of luck rather than due to their merit, skills, or efforts.

Symptoms

The extent and severity of survivor’s guilt can vary. Some people may feel a sense of sorrow, while others become mired in all-consuming remorse. Symptoms of survivor’s guilt can include:

Psychological

  • Feelings of guilt

  • Nightmares

  • Flashbacks

  • Irritability

  • Feelings of helplessness

  • Lack of motivation

  • Anxiety

  • Suicidal thoughts

Physical

  • Numbness

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Stomach aches

  • Racing heart

Following a trauma, people may also experience feelings of regret. They may ruminate over the events that took place and think about things they could have or should have done that (they think) would have altered the outcome. This rehashing of the events can further exacerbate feelings of guilt, particularly if people feel that their own actions (or inactions) may have worsened the consequences.

In many cases, this rumination is influenced by what is known as the hindsight bias. People look back and overestimate their ability to have known the outcome of an event. Because they feel like they should have predicted what happened, people may become convinced that they should also have been able to change the outcome.

Causes

While not everyone feels survivor’s guilt, it is not uncommon after experiencing some type of trauma. And while it can be quite common, this does not mean that is not serious or that it does not require some sort of intervention or treatment.

A person’s locus of control might play a role in determining whether he or she experiences survivor guilt. Some people are more likely to internalize blame. When explaining events, they tend to attribute causation to personal characteristics rather than outside forces.

In a lot of situations, this can actually be a good thing for self-esteem. By taking credit for good outcomes, people are able to feel better about themselves and their abilities. But it can be devastating when people blame themselves for events out of their control.

Some other factors that may increase the likelihood of survivor’s guilt:

Past Trauma

Some research has indicated that experiencing trauma during childhood can increase the likelihood of feeling negative emotions following other life-threatening events.

A History of Depression

People who are already depressed or who experienced it in the past may also be more likely to experience guilt and anxiety following trauma.

Low Self-esteem

People with low self-esteem may place less value on their own well-being. When faced with the experience of surviving where others have perished, they may be more likely to question whether they “deserved” their good luck. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and even guilt.

Lack of Support

People who do not have a solid network of social support may be more likely to experience symptoms related to survivor’s guilt.

Poor Coping Skills

Young people who experience tragic events may feel the effects of survivor’s guilt more strongly than older adults with better coping skills because they have less experience and confidence in their own ability to manage difficult events. An individual’s level of resilience plays an important role in how well they cope with negative events and experiences.

Treatments

Getting appropriate treatment if you are experiencing such symptoms is important. Not only can it reduce your mental well-being and quality of life, but it can also present serious risks, particularly if other symptoms of PTSD are also present. 

Researchers have found that trauma-related guilt is closely linked to suicidal thoughts in veterans.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one approach that can be particularly effective. Through CBT, clients work with a therapist to explore automatic negative thoughts that contribute to feelings of guilt. Examining unrealistic thoughts and replacing them with more realistic ones can help alleviate feelings of guilt and self-blame.

Other forms of psychotherapy, group therapy, support groups, and medications may also be helpful in the treatment of survivor’s guilt symptoms.

Coping

If you find yourself experiencing feelings of guilt following an aversive event, there are things you can do to manage those emotions. Some self-help strategies that you may find effective:

  • Remember that these feelings are normal and common. Experiencing guilt doesn’t mean that you’re guilty of doing anything wrong. Sadness, fear, anxiety, grief, and, yes, guilt are completely normal responses in the aftermath of a tragedy. It’s ok to feel happy about your own luck while at the same time mourning the fate of others.
  • Focus on the outside factors that led to an event. Shifting your focus on the external variables that created the situation can help you let go of the self-blame that contributes to feelings of guilt.
  • Allow yourself to grieve. It is important to acknowledge the people who were lost and allow yourself to mourn. Give yourself time and take things at your own pace.
  • Do something positive. Whether it is for yourself or for others, take those feelings that direct them toward making a change in the world. Sometimes just doing simple things for another person can help alleviate feelings of guilt.
  • Practice self-forgiveness. Even if your actions were responsible for harm to another person, learning how to forgive yourself can help you move forward and regain a positive outlook

    Talk to your doctor if your symptoms are severe or your feelings of guilt are interfering with your ability to function normally.

    A Word From Verywell

    Survivor’s guilt can feel overwhelming at times, but it is not uncommon to feel this way after you have survived a traumatic or difficult life event. It is important to acknowledge your guilt and reach out if these feelings become too difficult to manage on your own. Appropriate treatment can help you address feelings of excessive or overwhelming guilt.

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