Surviving a traumatic event can bring forth conflicting (and completely normal) feelings:
- grief for those who didn’t survive
- relief, gratitude, and an overwhelming sense of your own good fortune
You might also notice more distressing emotions. Many people who live through trauma and other life threatening situations go on to develop survivor guilt, which refers to strong and persistent feelings of remorse, personal responsibility, and sadness.
While survivor guilt is often associated with large-scale tragedies, acts of terror, genocide, and other mass atrocities, it can also show up in other situations:
- after experiencing military conflict
- when working as a firefighter, police officer, emergency medical technician, or other first responder
- after living through a natural disaster
- after witnessing a mass shooting or other act of violence
- when a sibling or parent experiences abuse
- when a loved one receives a diagnosis of a genetic condition or other life threatening condition, like cancer
- if you’ve kept your job, stayed healthy, or otherwise thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic
Survivor guilt is considered more of a symptom than a specific mental health condition, but that doesn’t make it any less serious. Left unaddressed, it can lead to long-term emotional distress, including thoughts of suicide.
Here’s a closer look at some of the common signs of survivor guilt and coping tips.
People living with survivor guilt experience guilty or remorseful feelings about the traumatic event. When these feelings show up in a cycle or repeating loop, you might struggle to turn your thoughts to anything else.
Your guilt could relate simply to your own survival, but you might also spend a lot of time thinking about what you might have done differently or how you could have helped others — even when you couldn’t have taken any specific action to change the outcome.
Other signs of survivor guilt resemble symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) lists guilt and self-blame as symptoms of PTSD. Many people with survivor guilt also have PTSD, though you can experience one without the other.
Along with guilt or remorse, you could also experience:
- obsessive or intrusive thoughts
- insomnia, nightmares, and other sleep problems
- abrupt changes in mood
- trouble concentrating
- anger, irritability, confusion, or fear
- loss of motivation
- disinterest in the things you usually enjoy
- a sense of disconnection or detachment from others
- an increased desire to isolate yourself
- feelings of despair
- thoughts of suicide
- physical symptoms, such as nausea, body tension and pain, or changes in appetite
Along with feelings of personal responsibility for the event or its outcome, even when you couldn’t have done anything to change what happened, you might also develop distorted or extreme negative beliefs about yourself or the world in general.
You might begin to:
- see yourself as a bad person and believe you deserve some kind of punishment
- believe you can’t trust anyone
- question your spiritual beliefs
- consider the world a wholly unjust or dangerous place
Although anyone can experience survivor guilt, many people heal from trauma without ever experiencing guilt.
There’s no definitive formula explaining why some people go on to feel guilty and others don’t, but experts believe the following factors can play a role.
Previous experience with trauma
If you’ve experienced trauma, in childhood or at any other point in life, you could have a greater chance of experiencing survivor guilt.
If you have a history of trauma, whether that involves neglect, natural disasters, or a car crash, you’re not only more likely to have feelings of guilt after living through another trauma. You’re also more likely to have more serious symptoms. You could even come to think of yourself as the “common denominator” and taking on all the blame or fixate on the (false) belief that your presence caused the trauma.
Existing mental health symptoms
This risk factor can add a new layer of complication for ongoing traumas like the COVID-19 pandemic.
Distancing guidelines, continued disruption of daily life and routines, and potentially serious health outcomes might add to your stress and prompt feelings of anxiety or depression, even if you never experienced them before the pandemic.
In time, this distress could worsen, especially if more of your loved ones face health consequences or other effects of the pandemic, like job loss.
If you’ve only experienced minimal disruptions yourself, especially in comparison to loved ones, you might begin to feel guilty or ashamed of your own relative security.
suggests a link between survivor guilt and submissive behavior. Researchers believe this could have an evolutionary component.
In other words, you might behave more submissively in social situations if you:
- fear putdowns, threats, or other negative responses from peers
- believe your success or well-being keeps others from experiencing the same
- believe you’re better off than others
Submissive behavior, then, effectively helps promote well-being for your social group as a whole. This could help explain why more socially submissive people often go on to develop survivor guilt when a traumatic event affects group well-being.
The researchers also linked submissive social behavior to introversion. Though introversion doesn’t automatically mean you’re more likely to experience survivor guilt, it could have an impact on the way you cope.
Self-esteem can also play a part. Since low self-esteem often involves fixed ideas about your own abilities or sense of worth, it might fuel thoughts like:
- Why did I survive?
- I don’t deserve to be here.
- If I had done something differently, that wouldn’t have happened.
- I couldn’t stop it, so it’s all my fault.
Less social support
The DSM-5 notes that social support, both before and after trauma, can help protect against PTSD.
Loneliness can make any type of emotional distress worse since feelings you can’t share or otherwise express can easily become overwhelming.
When you don’t have support from others, you might find yourself fixating on false beliefs about the trauma, including your own sense of responsibility. You might even assume others blame you, just as you blame yourself.
Unhelpful coping skills
People cope with the effects of trauma in various ways. Some of these strategies have less benefit than others.
It’s not uncommon to try to suppress or avoid memories of the trauma in order to escape unwanted emotions like guilt and sadness. You might also try to deny feelings of guilt entirely, or alternatively, give in to them by assigning and accepting blame you don’t deserve.
In the absence of social support and other helpful coping strategies, you could also use alcohol or other substances to numb emotional distress and keep feelings of anxiety or depression at bay.
Many people do find this strategy offers some temporarily relief, but it can still have negative effects on long-term physical and mental health. What’s more, increased substance use can sometimes worsen feelings of guilt and depression.
Feelings of guilt, along with any other distress you might experience after a traumatic event, often pass with time.
The strategies below can help you manage guilt and ease its impact until it begins to lift naturally.
Work toward acceptance
After a traumatic event, acceptance can feel incredibly difficult. You have to accept the event itself, which might include acknowledging and coming to terms with the loss of loved ones or your way of life. But you also have to acknowledge and accept guilt, grief, and any other emotions born from that trauma.
Avoiding or blocking memories of the traumatic event sometimes seems more helpful. After all, avoidance keeps you from re-experiencing distressing and unwanted emotions when you don’t feel ready to cope. Still, avoidance and denial generally don’t work as long-term solutions.
When you take time to grieve and fully process your feelings, it often becomes easier to accept all aspects of the trauma, including the fact that you didn’t cause the event and couldn’t have done anything to alter the outcome.
If meditation doesn’t work for you, keeping a journal can also help with expressing and processing guilt, grief, and other emotional distress.
Try mindfulness and other grounding exercises
Mindfulness techniques can boost focus on the present moment, making it easier to release upsetting thoughts without fixating or judging yourself for them.
A few quick tactics to boost mindfulness:
- Take a walk. Focus your attention on what you see, hear, and feel.
- Color, draw, or doodle.
- Try a quick body scan or other simple meditation.
Talk to loved ones
Emotional support from loved ones can make a big difference after a trauma. Friends and family can offer support by listening to your distress and reminding you that you weren’t to blame.
Loved ones who express gratitude for your well-being can also help you remember there’s nothing wrong with feeling relief or gratitude for your own safety. You can have these feelings and still regret the pain and suffering experienced by others.
Sharing your emotions with loved ones who went through the trauma with you can also encourage them to do the same.
Finding it difficult to open up to people in your life?
- In-person or online support groups can help you connect with people in similar situations.
- Expressing emotions through writing or art can also make a big difference.
If time doesn’t make much of a difference in feelings of survivor guilt, or any other emotional distress, talking to a therapist or other mental health professional is a good next step.
A therapist can offer guidance with:
- exploring underlying factors contributing to guilt, such as feelings of personal responsibility
- working through depression, fear, anxiety, and other distress
- reframe and challenge negative thoughts around not just guilt, but also the trauma itself
- identifying helpful coping skills and putting them into practice
Online therapist directories and search engines can help you connect with a local therapist who specializes in PTSD, if not survivor guilt. A primary care provider or community mental health center can also help you find a therapist.
Not many providers in your area? Concerned about staying safe during COVID-19? You can also access therapy through online platforms. Check out our top 10 picks.
Feeling guilty about surviving, even succeeding, when others have suffered instead only serves to illustrate your empathy and compassion. Still, while these feelings might come from a good place, they can intensify pain and distress.
Instead of punishing yourself for making it through, try reframing your survival as a gift, one you can pay forward with gratitude and kindness toward others. Doing what you can to support loved ones, even strangers, who continue to struggle can add meaning and purpose to your life.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.