How to Live With Survivors Guilt

The barricades are removed and residents are free to return to the scene where an earlier firestorm had raged through the neighborhood. Neighbors reaching the site brace themselves, preparing for what they might find. Imagine the horror of finding one home after another burnt to the ground, leaving piles of soot and ash as the only signs of the years spent living in that once beautiful and lively neighborhood. Imagine being the owner of the one home that, for reasons no one can grasp, is left standing, unscathed by the inferno. While initially filled with gratitude and relief, those emotions may give way to something referred to as “survivor’s guilt.”

Survivor’s guilt is a lingering psychological effect of escaping injury or death after a traumatic event. Examples would include a natural disaster, as explained above, surviving military combat when buddies were killed, being the lone survivor of an accident that killed the rest of one’s family, seeing members of a cancer support group die while others live, surviving a terrorist attack that resulted in multiple fatalities.

Learning how to live with survivor’s guilt takes time and commitment, but it is essential if one is to process the trauma, heal, and move forward in life. Managing survival guilt will require acquiring a fresh perspective that helps in reframing the kneejerk questions, “Why was I spared,” “What could I have done to prevent this,” or “How can I be happy again when others have suffered?” While these are normal feelings to have following an event where a person is spared where others perish, it is important to gain a new mindset if one is to learn how to live with survivor’s guilt. Only then can you rise above the guilt and continue on with a purposeful life.

What Are the Signs of Survivor Guilt?

It isn’t difficult to understand how someone could be left with survivor’s guilt after managing to avoid injury, property destruction, a layoff at work, or even death when others were not so lucky. You may feel riddled with guilt and feel unworthy and even ashamed that you were spared. The symptoms of survivor’s guilt are somewhat similar to those of a trauma disorder, such as PTSD, with a few additional features. These might include:

  • Feeling a sense of responsibility for the event, or the losses suffered, even if this is not rational or appropriate
  • Experiencing recurring thoughts about the event, replaying the event over and over in one’s mind
  • Feeling guilt when experiencing happiness after the event
  • Nightmares
  • Avoidance of situations that trigger memories of the event
  • Social withdrawal
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Symptoms of anxiety or depression
  • Mood swings
  • Apathy

Tips For Managing Survivor Guilt

When faced with a situation that has resulted in strong guilt feelings after avoiding the fallout that others endured, there are a few actions to take that can help one learn how to live with survivor’s guilt. These tips can help promote the guilt to dissipate, at least for the most part, allowing the individual to be able to function again at normal capacity.

These tips include:

  1. Redirect the energy invested in the guilty feelings towards volunteer activities or victim advocacy efforts. Volunteer at an emergency shelter, work a hotline, donate food and clothing.
  2. Get clarity on what or who is actually to blame. Was it arson that caused the fire, was it enemy fire that took the comrades lives, was it a drunk driver that resulted in the death of a loved one.
  3. Allow yourself to grief for the loss. Attempting to bottle up the guilt and sadness only allows negative emotions to fester and grow, ultimately hindering your own ability to function. Allow for the processing of emotions that lie beneath the guilt.

Treatment for Trauma or PTSD

When all efforts to overcome the survivor’s guilt seem to fail, it is possible that more intensive therapy may be needed to overcome the trauma. Trauma treatment consists of a combination of therapies, usually exposure therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. These evidence-based approaches help the person address irrational thoughts that are trapping them in the guilt, and then replace them with more affirming self-messaging. Exposure therapy helps to incrementally desensitize the person so the event and aftermath are then processed.

In some cases, medication may be helpful. Medications for trauma-related disorders include anti-anxiety medications, called benzodiazepines, or antidepressants. In addition, learning methods to help induce relaxation, such as deep breathing exercises or mindfulness training, can also assist with decreasing feelings of anxiety.

The Treatment Specialist Provides Essential Information About Mental Health

The Treatment Specialist is an online platform that provides an extensive digital library on topics related to mental health, addiction, and dual diagnosis disorders and treatment. Getting help to learn how to live with survivor’s guilt is the first step toward mental wellness. Reach out to The Treatment Specialist today for free personal assistance and guidance toward treatment options. Call (866) 644-7911 today.

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