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Traumatic Events: Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

By July 14, 2019August 31st, 2020Blog


People may experience feelings of guilt after surviving a situation where others did not. Survivor’s guilt is a common reaction to traumatic events, and it can be highly distressing for those who develop it.

Survivor’s guilt is defined as feelings of guilt that occur after surviving a life-threatening, traumatic event when others did not. It is a common reaction to traumatic events and a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What is Survivor’s Guilt?

After experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event, survivors may question why they escaped death while others lost their lives or whether there was something that they could have done to prevent the traumatic event or preserve lives. These feelings are known as survivors’ guilt. There are endless examples of people who may experience survivors’ guilt, including:

●      War veterans

●      First responders

●      Vehicular crash survivors

●      Natural disaster survivors

●      Parents who outlive a child

●      Family members of those who have developed a fatal hereditary condition

●      9/11 survivors

In a 2018 study, researchers found that 90% of participants who had survived an event when others had not reported experiencing feelings of guilt. Another study reports a link between the survivor’s guilt and submissiveness and introversion. The researchers hypothesize that survivor’s guilt may be an evolutionary mechanism to support group living.

Not everyone who experiences a traumatic event will also experience survivors’ guilt. However, there are factors that will increase  the possibility, such as:

●      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 abuse

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.

Trauma Definition

Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association, is defined as an emotional response to a terrible event such as a natural disaster, assault, or an accident. The longer people live, the more inevitable it is that they will experience trauma as trauma does not discriminate, and it is prevalent around the world. About 6 of every 10 men (or 60%) and 5 of every 10 women (or 50%) experience at least one trauma in their lives.

While there are no objective criteria to determine which events will cause symptoms of trauma, situations typically involve the loss of control, betrayal, abuse of power, helplessness, pain, confusion and/or loss. The traumatic event does not have to rise to the level of war, natural disaster, or personal assault to affect a person intensely and alter their life experiences. 

There are several symptoms associated with trauma that a person may experience. Just because all of these are valid symptoms does not mean an individual will experience all of them. These potential symptoms include:

●      Emotions such as sadness, anger, denial, fear, and shame

●      Nightmares

●      Insomnia or altered sleep patterns

●      Difficulty with relationships

●      Emotional outbursts

●      Nausea

●      Dizziness

●      Headaches

●      Gastrointestinal problems

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)          

According to the American Psychiatric Association, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that affects people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. Some examples of traumatic events include:

●  Serious accidents

●  Natural disasters

●  Terrorist attacks

●  War/combat

●  Assault

PTSD can happen to anyone and at any given moment and affects approximately 3.5% of adults in the United States. Furthermore, it is estimated that roughly 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (or 7-8% of the population) will experience PTSD at some point in their lives, with women being twice as likely to experience PTSD than men. 

There are several types of symptoms someone with PTSD may experience, including: 

●      Avoiding anything that reminds them of their trauma which can potentially cause them to avoid any/all people, places, situations, objects and/or activities that remind them of their trauma or evoke other PTSD symptoms. They will do whatever they can to avoid remembering or thinking about the traumatic event they either experienced or witnessed. They may also resist or avoid talking to others altogether.

●      Feelings of irritability, angry outbursts, recklessness, self-destructive behaviors, difficulty concentrating, easily startled and difficulty sleeping are all potential ways PTSD can affect an individual’s personality and/or behavior.

●      People suffering from PTSD may experience ongoing and distorted beliefs about themselves or others. These feelings include ongoing fear, horror, guilt, anger, and shame. These thoughts and feelings may cause them to lose interest in the activities they once enjoyed. They may also cause them to feel detached or estranged from the world around them. 

●      PTSD can also cause intrusive thoughts, such as repeated, involuntary memories, distressing dreams, or flashbacks. These thoughts can be so vivid that people will genuinely feel as though they are physically re-living their traumatic experiences. 

Many people who are exposed to a traumatic event experience the symptoms listed above in the days following the event. However, for a person to be diagnosed with PTSD, symptoms must last for more than a month. Many individuals develop symptoms within three months of the trauma, but symptoms may appear later. For people with PTSD, the symptoms cause significant distress or problems in their daily functioning. Not everyone who experiences or witnesses a trauma will develop PTSD. It is important to note that PTSD is not a sign of weakness; there is no way to know if a person will or will not experience PTSD symptoms after a trauma.

Early Intervention and Treatment is Crucial

Intervene as soon as possible on behalf of someone suffering from trauma, PTSD, and/or survivors’ guilt.  Uncharacteristic behavior can become increasingly destructive. Over time, buried and suppressed memories become more and more powerful. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy® (ART) is an innovative, evidence-based therapy for PTSD, anxiety, depression, stress, and similar mental health issues. Initially, the therapy was primarily used to help veterans suffering from PTSD. One of the major advantages is the speed at which ART is able to bring relief. Generally, one to five sessions are needed, not months or years of expensive psychiatric treatment. 

Accelerated Resolution Therapy works by reprogramming the traumatic memories that are preventing afflicted individuals from enjoying the full life they deserve. The techniques work equally well on anyone suffering from trauma, regardless of the type of trauma experienced. Trauma, at the end of the day, is still trauma.

Regardless of how bad things may be, there is always hope, and there is always someone available to help a person through difficult times. Contact ART International to learn more about the ART or find a therapist.