Understanding and Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor's guilt is a common reaction to surviving a traumatic, life-threatening event when others did not.
By illume Editorial Team
Last updated: Jul 26, 2023
10 min read
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It can leave individuals feeling guilty for surviving when others did not. Survivor’s guilt is a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and dealing with it is an important part of the healing process.

What is Survivor’s Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt, also sometimes called survivor syndrome, refers to intense feelings of guilt that an individual experiences after surviving a traumatic, life-threatening event. This syndrome frequently affects those who have lived through natural disasters, combat, terrorist attacks, serious accidents or other traumatic events where others have died.

People experiencing survivor’s guilt will often question why they survived when others tragically did not. They may feel deep down that they did something wrong by surviving or that they do not deserve to live when others lost their lives. These extremely negative thoughts and immense feelings of guilt are the key characteristics of survivor’s guilt. Individuals feel that they should not be alive while others are dead, leading to profound guilt and shame.

Common Causes of Survivor’s Guilt

There are many types of traumatic events that can lead to survivor’s guilt, including:

  • Natural disasters – Survivors of devastating hurricanes, fires, floods or earthquakes often experience guilt when others lose their lives. They may feel their lives were spared unfairly.
  • Accidents – People who survive deadly vehicle crashes, explosions, building collapses or other accidents frequently develop guilt, wondering why they lived while others died.
  • Combat – Soldiers who lose fellow troops, friends and colleagues in combat often experience immense guilt. They may feel directly responsible for the deaths.
  • Abuse or violent crimes – Victims of domestic abuse, assault, shootings or other violent crimes sometimes develop guilt when others do not survive the trauma.
  • Serious illnesses – Those who recover from life-threatening illnesses like cancer or COVID-19 may experience guilt when loved ones succumb to the disease. They feel it is unjust they survived.

Essentially any life-threatening situation where some individuals manage to survive while others tragically lose their lives can lead to profound feelings of survivor’s guilt. The guilt stems from the awful feeling that their survival was unfair.

Signs and Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt

There are several common signs and symptoms that indicate an individual may be experiencing survivor’s guilt:

  • Intense and overwhelming feelings of guilt or shame
  • Blaming themselves for surviving when others did not
  • Persistent feelings of unworthiness or feeling undeserving of life
  • Extreme difficulty enjoying life or feeling any sense of happiness or joy
  • Withdrawing socially from family and friends
  • Feeling detached, isolated or disconnected
  • Anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping or other mental health issues
  • Thoughts of suicide or suicidal behaviors

Survivor’s guilt sufferers may also commonly experience disturbing nightmares, flashbacks or other PTSD symptoms that disrupt daily functioning. Survivor’s guilt can truly be severe and deeply impact one’s quality of life.

Coping with Survivor’s Guilt

If you or a loved one is showing multiple signs of survivor’s guilt, know that healing absolutely is possible. Here are some techniques and tips for coping with guilt and trauma after surviving a life-threatening event:

Seek professional counseling or therapy – Meeting with a licensed mental health professional that specializes in PTSD and survivor’s guilt can be enormously helpful. They can provide research-backed techniques for processing trauma and guilt in a gradual, healthy way. Medications may also help in some cases under a doctor’s supervision.

Join a support group – Connecting with other survivors who are experiencing similar emotions can help individuals realize they are not alone in their feelings. Support groups can provide perspective that the guilt is a normal reaction and hope for recovering.

Practice self-compassion – Those experiencing survivor’s guilt often have immense anger and hatred directed inward. Making an effort to practice self-compassion, rather than self-blame, is key. Understand that what happened was not your fault and you deserve to heal.

Honor those lost in a meaningful way – Finding ways to honor and remember loved ones who died that feel meaningful can help provide a sense of peace and purpose. This could include memorial services, charitable donations, community activism or supporting other grieving loved ones.

Consider mindfulness techniques – Meditation, breathwork, yoga, keeping a journal and other mindfulness practices can help calm the mind from disturbing thoughts of guilt. Staying grounded in the present moment through these techniques aids emotional healing.

Work on forgiving yourself – Radically accepting that you did nothing wrong and do not need to feel guilty for surviving is an important part of the forgiveness process. You deserve to live and experience happiness.

Look to the future – While never forgetting those lost, purposefully focusing your thoughts on the future, setting new life goals and finding meaning can help ease survivor’s guilt. Honoring lost loved ones by living a full, purposeful life is often the best tribute.

Don’t isolate – get support – The compassion, understanding and support of family, friends, clergy, therapists or others in your support system can be invaluable when coping with guilt. Don’t isolate yourself – lean on loved ones.

The grief and trauma of surviving life-threatening events when others do not is incredibly challenging. But with professional support, mindful self-care and the help of others, it is truly possible to work through guilt and find hope. If you or someone you love is experiencing survivor’s guilt, please know brighter days lie ahead. You deserve to heal.