Survivor’s guilt is when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In this article, we explore the phenomenon of survivor’s guilt and look at its symptoms and causes. We also discuss some tips for overcoming survivor’s guilt and explain when to seek professional help.
What is survivor’s guilt?
Survivor’s guilt can occur in relation to a traumatic event or a loss of life. When a person survives an event that others did not, it can lead to feelings of guilt.
Survivors may question why they escaped death while others lost their lives. They may also wonder whether there was something that they could have done to prevent the traumatic event or preserve life.
While it was once a diagnosis in its own right, mental health professionals now consider survivor’s guilt to be a significant symptom of PTSD.
People who may experience survivor’s guilt include:
- war veterans
- first responders
- Holocaust survivors
- 9/11 survivors
- cancer survivors
- transplant recipients
- crash survivors
- natural disaster survivors
- witnesses to a traumatic event
- family members of those who have developed a fatal hereditary condition
- those who lose a family member to suicide
- parents who outlive their child
Although not everyone experiences survivor’s guilt, research suggests that feelings of guilt are common following traumatic or life-threatening events.
In a 2018 study, researchers surveyed people who were receiving treatment from a traumatic stressclinic in the U.K. They found that 90% of participants who had survived an event when others had died reported experiencing feelings of guilt.
The findings of a study from 2019 suggest that 55–63.9% of people who survive lung cancer experience guilt.
When people survive a traumatic event, they may experience feelings of guilt about:
- surviving when others did not
- what they did during the traumatic event
- what they did not do during the traumatic event
People with survivor’s guilt can often experience other symptoms of PTSD, including:
- flashbacks of the traumatic event
- obsessive thoughts about the event
- irritability and anger
- feelings of helplessness and disconnection
- fear and confusion
- lack of motivation
- problems sleeping
- nausea or stomachache
- social isolation
- thoughts of suicide
As with PTSD, survivor’s guilt may cause a person to see the world as an unfair and unsafe place.
Survivor’s guilt occurs in people who have experienced a traumatic event. However, not everyone who lives through such an event develops feelings of guilt.
Factors that increase a person’s risk of experiencing guilt after surviving a traumatic event include:
- a history of trauma, such as childhood abuse
- having other mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression
- a family history of psychiatric problems
- lack of support from friends and family
- alcohol or drug use
Research suggests that survivors can hold false beliefs about their role in an event, which can lead to feelings of guilt. These beliefs can include exaggerated or distorted ideas about:
- their ability to predict or prevent an outcome
- their role in causing negative outcomes
- wrongdoing on their part
Having these beliefs increases the severity of PTSD symptoms, including feelings of guilt and distress.
Another study reports a link between survivor’s guilt and submissiveness and introversion. The researchers hypothesize that survivor’s guilt may be an evolutionary mechanism to support group living.
Author: Jayne Leonard