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What is Survivor Guilt and How to Get Through It

survivor guilt therapist philadelphia

What is survivor guilt?

Survivor guilt is the experience of living through an extraordinary event and experiencing feelings of guilt for surviving. The “event” could be anything from escaping an accident (a car crash or house fire), to surviving high intensity/high stress situations (a bank robbery or police stand-off) or a more large-scale event such as a terrorist attack (like 9/11 or the most recent Orlando shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub where a gunman left 49 people dead and 53 injured).

Survivor guilt can also be experienced through near-miss events with what would become a life-alternating experience for other people. Examples of near-miss events could include offering your airline seat to someone, only to hear the plane crashed after take-off or running late to work only to find out your office was gunned down and co-workers perished.

Feelings of guilt after surviving a traumatic event or experiencing a near-miss event that was traumatizing for others, is a primary symptom of survivor guilt.  It is a feeling that somehow, by surviving, one has done something wrong or is somehow undeserving of surviving the traumatic experience.  Feelings of guilt may also be connected to the actions someone did or did not do during the event. Guilt may also be experienced in connection with other victims, especially for those who became wounded or perished during the event while engaging in life-saving measures.

If, as a survivor, you are experiencing feelings of guilt or self-condemnation, I cannot underscore enough that feelings connected to survivor guilt are normal and are part of the healing process. This blog aims to provide support and information to survivors, normalizing your experience and providing direction for those who want to return to feeling in control of difficult emotions and thoughts.

If you are a survivor, I am glad you are here. When working through understanding your emotions and thoughts connected to the event:

Give yourself time to mourn.

Healing does not occur on a timeline. You are allowed to have as much or as little time as possible to recover from what your experience was. Do your best to not pressure yourself to “move on” or “get over it,” especially if you don’t feel ready. If people in your life are telling you to move on, for your own healing purposes, consider putting some distance between yourself and those individuals, especially while you are mourning.

Connect with others.

While you may want to isolate and have more time to yourself than usual, it is important to stay connected with other people. Connect with other survivors from the event, connect with good friends and connect with family who get you. You don’t need to absorb yourself in other people 24/7 (especially if that isn’t your style), but connecting with other people will bring you out of your headspace,  reminding you of joy and what’s good in the world.  Connecting with other survivors can palliative feelings of isolation because they are the ones who can most identify with your experience.  They were there during the event and they, like you, are also feeling a range of emotions and thoughts while trying to recover.

Recognize that recovery takes time.

Some days are better than others.  Some days you might not want to get out of bed or change out of your sweatpants, and that’s okay.  Other days will feel better.  The goal here is to have more good days than bad days, but if it’s a little more lopsided in the beginning of your recovery, that is okay too. What you are experiencing will feel most raw right after the event. Expect that.  Expect everything and nothing at the same time because ultimately what you are coping through is grief, and grief looks like a lot of different things to different people and it is different for everyone.

Find balance in your everyday life.

If you feel like your head and your emotions are more invested in negative feelings and thoughts than you are comfortable with or like, find a way to create balance in your life. Maybe it’s yoga, running, journaling, kick-boxing, painting or seeking therapy. Whatever brings you pleasure and lifts your mood (even if only a little), that’s an activity worth investing in right now, not tomorrow.

Find good around you.

I know you’ve been through a lot, but do your best to find one good thing in each day. No matter how big or how small, something good happened today.  Find it, acknowledge it, and offer it appreciation.  Doing this will help shift your brain from the dark shadows into the light.

Give back.

If you feel consumed by grief, guilt and/or sadness, find a way to give back.  Volunteering your time is one way to start.  If you lost someone you loved during the tragedy, consider doing something in their honor as a way to pay respect and give back. Donate a park bench, participate in a community clean up, have an artist paint a mural to honor your friend or share your story with others. Giving back boosts mood and creates community.

Seek support.

As a survivor, if you feel increasingly overwhelmed, sad, depressed, worried, anxious or like you are “losing your mind,” it’s okay to seek support. You survived an extraordinary event, an event that many people might have a difficult time understanding.  If you are experiencing lingering feelings of guilt, anxiety or other disturbing symptoms (and it’s been a number of weeks)  consider the opportunity to talk with a mental health professional who specializes in trauma.

Survivor guilt, while normal, can become a symptom of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting in nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, depression, excessive feelings of guilt, a high startle response and hyper-vigilance to your environment that would be considered excessive. While the symptoms of survivor guilt usually decreased in frequency and intensity in time, if you are having a difficult time, talking with a therapist can help.

You are capable of getting through this life-altering experience, and a good therapist can give you the tools to recover. Remember, coping takes time and finding what works for you is most important. You can do this. If you have questions about this article or are interested in the services offered at Cope Better, contact me.



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Cope Better Therapy

Lori provides counseling to adults and couples in a comfortable environment in Rittenhouse Square. Through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MbSR), she helps individuals live fuller lives.


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