Coping With Guilt After Surviving a Traumatic Event

Reviewed Jul 11, 2017

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Summary

To cope with survivor guilt:

  • Acknowledge feelings of guilt
  • Allow time to mourn
  • Take positive action
  • Seek support
  • Stay healthy

Floods, tornadoes, fires, airplane crashes—they happen, and many people survive these calamities. So we start shopping again, check out the movies and meet friends for dinner. But we feel guilty. How can we move on emotionally when so many have died? What if it had been me or someone I loved? What could I have done to prevent it? How can I properly mourn?

These are natural questions for people who went through a traumatic event. We usually associate such “survivor guilt” with war veterans, victims of violent crime, or survivors of life-threatening diseases. But we don’t have to be directly involved in a traumatic event to be affected by it. Many experience a kind of collective survivor guilt after repeatedly viewing images of any disaster. Many of us are unable to come up with a suitable reaction, and thus, a sense of guilt emerges.

Therapists view survivor guilt as a secondary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that it doesn’t come directly from the original experience. It occurs later when a person who was somehow traumatized tries to get back to normal life, only to be sidetracked by such secondary feelings as guilt.

Coping tips

If it goes unchecked, excessive guilt can lead to other problems such as depression, apathy, or generalized anxiety.  We need to remember that guilt is a common reaction to loss and as such, it can ultimately be part of the healing process. These tips can help you cope with guilt:

  • Acknowledge that you are feeling guilty. To deal with negative feelings, you must first recognize their symptoms.
  • Take time to mourn. Attend a religious or community ceremony or plan your own way to recognize the suffering of others.
  • Turn your negative feelings into positive action. Make a contribution, hold a fundraiser, take part in a rally, give blood, or participate in any volunteer action that makes you feel that you are serving the greater good.
  • Seek out other people. Isolation worsens guilt, so turn to friends, family, or support groups.
  • Keep healthy—eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. Don’t drown your feelings in alcohol, drugs, or junk food; it will only compound the problem.
  • Take advantage of the many organizations offering advice on coping with disasters. 
By Amy Fries
Source: American Psychological Association, www.apa.org; National Brain Tumor Society, “What Long-Term Survivors Don’t Talk About,” www.braintumor.org/; The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, www.ptsd.va.gov/; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov

Summary

To cope with survivor guilt:

  • Acknowledge feelings of guilt
  • Allow time to mourn
  • Take positive action
  • Seek support
  • Stay healthy

Floods, tornadoes, fires, airplane crashes—they happen, and many people survive these calamities. So we start shopping again, check out the movies and meet friends for dinner. But we feel guilty. How can we move on emotionally when so many have died? What if it had been me or someone I loved? What could I have done to prevent it? How can I properly mourn?

These are natural questions for people who went through a traumatic event. We usually associate such “survivor guilt” with war veterans, victims of violent crime, or survivors of life-threatening diseases. But we don’t have to be directly involved in a traumatic event to be affected by it. Many experience a kind of collective survivor guilt after repeatedly viewing images of any disaster. Many of us are unable to come up with a suitable reaction, and thus, a sense of guilt emerges.

Therapists view survivor guilt as a secondary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that it doesn’t come directly from the original experience. It occurs later when a person who was somehow traumatized tries to get back to normal life, only to be sidetracked by such secondary feelings as guilt.

Coping tips

If it goes unchecked, excessive guilt can lead to other problems such as depression, apathy, or generalized anxiety.  We need to remember that guilt is a common reaction to loss and as such, it can ultimately be part of the healing process. These tips can help you cope with guilt:

  • Acknowledge that you are feeling guilty. To deal with negative feelings, you must first recognize their symptoms.
  • Take time to mourn. Attend a religious or community ceremony or plan your own way to recognize the suffering of others.
  • Turn your negative feelings into positive action. Make a contribution, hold a fundraiser, take part in a rally, give blood, or participate in any volunteer action that makes you feel that you are serving the greater good.
  • Seek out other people. Isolation worsens guilt, so turn to friends, family, or support groups.
  • Keep healthy—eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. Don’t drown your feelings in alcohol, drugs, or junk food; it will only compound the problem.
  • Take advantage of the many organizations offering advice on coping with disasters. 
By Amy Fries
Source: American Psychological Association, www.apa.org; National Brain Tumor Society, “What Long-Term Survivors Don’t Talk About,” www.braintumor.org/; The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, www.ptsd.va.gov/; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov

Summary

To cope with survivor guilt:

  • Acknowledge feelings of guilt
  • Allow time to mourn
  • Take positive action
  • Seek support
  • Stay healthy

Floods, tornadoes, fires, airplane crashes—they happen, and many people survive these calamities. So we start shopping again, check out the movies and meet friends for dinner. But we feel guilty. How can we move on emotionally when so many have died? What if it had been me or someone I loved? What could I have done to prevent it? How can I properly mourn?

These are natural questions for people who went through a traumatic event. We usually associate such “survivor guilt” with war veterans, victims of violent crime, or survivors of life-threatening diseases. But we don’t have to be directly involved in a traumatic event to be affected by it. Many experience a kind of collective survivor guilt after repeatedly viewing images of any disaster. Many of us are unable to come up with a suitable reaction, and thus, a sense of guilt emerges.

Therapists view survivor guilt as a secondary symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in that it doesn’t come directly from the original experience. It occurs later when a person who was somehow traumatized tries to get back to normal life, only to be sidetracked by such secondary feelings as guilt.

Coping tips

If it goes unchecked, excessive guilt can lead to other problems such as depression, apathy, or generalized anxiety.  We need to remember that guilt is a common reaction to loss and as such, it can ultimately be part of the healing process. These tips can help you cope with guilt:

  • Acknowledge that you are feeling guilty. To deal with negative feelings, you must first recognize their symptoms.
  • Take time to mourn. Attend a religious or community ceremony or plan your own way to recognize the suffering of others.
  • Turn your negative feelings into positive action. Make a contribution, hold a fundraiser, take part in a rally, give blood, or participate in any volunteer action that makes you feel that you are serving the greater good.
  • Seek out other people. Isolation worsens guilt, so turn to friends, family, or support groups.
  • Keep healthy—eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep. Don’t drown your feelings in alcohol, drugs, or junk food; it will only compound the problem.
  • Take advantage of the many organizations offering advice on coping with disasters. 
By Amy Fries
Source: American Psychological Association, www.apa.org; National Brain Tumor Society, “What Long-Term Survivors Don’t Talk About,” www.braintumor.org/; The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, www.ptsd.va.gov/; National Institute of Mental Health, www.nimh.nih.gov

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