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Survivor's Guilt and Trauma

Trauma can have a profound effect on you, fostering a wide variety of side effects that impede your life. However, one of the most common side effects of trauma is survivor’s guilt. While survivor’s guilt can be a normal reaction to a tragic event, if left untreated, it can be detrimental to your psychological well-being.

What Is Survivor’s Guilt?

According to an article from the Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, survivor’s guilt is defined as a form of emotional distress and negative self-appraisal that arises when you are exposed to or witness death. However, in some cases, survivor’s guilt has been used broadly in events where life was not lost. Examples of this can include surpassing the academic and financial barriers of other family members and your cultural community. Nevertheless, when you survive a traumatic event and others do not, it can leave you feeling irrationally responsible for the deaths and injuries of other survivors.

Four Elements of Survivor’s Guilt

There are four main elements that can make it difficult to process and release survivor’s guilt. These include:

  1. Attempts to restore balance:
    • Perceived inequity
      • Unable to restore balance in a satisfactory way
      • Seeking purpose
  2. Rumination:
    • Searching for meaning
    • Counterfactual thinking
      • Repeatedly asking what ifs
    • Trying to answer impossible existential questions
      • Why them and not me?
    • Unable to accept the truth on an emotional level
  3. Guilt/shame-related intrusions:
    • Intrusive memories
    • Triggered by reminders of the event
  4. Secondary appraisals:
    • Perceiving guilt as punishment for survival

Moreover, these four elements begin to highlight some of the mental ramifications of guilt on mental health.

The Impact of Guilt on Mental Health

As noted in an article from Frontiers in Psychology, guilt is an emotion based on self-criticism for a specific action and the harm it may have caused other people. In general, guilt is not necessarily a negative or unhealthy emotion to feel as it is typically a reflection of your ability to be concerned with how your actions impact others and the ability to empathize by seeing things from other people’s perspectives. However, guilt becomes maladaptive to your mental health when you experience an unfounded sense of responsibility for things out of your control, like survivor’s guilt. Moreover, some of the mental health disorders and conditions that arise from maladaptive guilt include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Depression
  • Suicidal ideation

While the impact of survivor’s guilt can feel overwhelming, there are therapeutic tools that can support you in recovering.

Interventions for Survivor’s Guilt

At The Guest House, we offer a holistic approach to care because we know your rumination and intrusive thoughts are coping mechanisms that your brain has built in an attempt to process your trauma. However, the negative thoughts and emotions you continue to feel only increase your psychological distress and perpetuate your self-defeating behaviors. Therefore, through a wide variety of therapeutic support, we are dedicated to helping you build healthy coping strategies. One of the many therapies we offer is somatic therapy, which is an invaluable tool in trauma recovery as it focuses on healing the whole person in mind, body, and spirit.

Survivor’s guilt is a side effect of trauma that can cause long-term emotional stress. Feeling irrationally responsible for the death and or injuries of others after a traumatic event can create an unhealthy cycle of guilt. However, learning how to build healthy coping strategies can help you break the cycle and start to heal. At The Guest House, we can utilize therapeutic techniques like somatic therapy to support your long-term healing in body, mind, and spirit. To learn more, call (855) 483-7800.