Survivor’s Guilt: Simple Strategies to Cope and Overcome

Published December 18, 2020
woman cope with loss and grief

Traumatic events occur as a part of life. Natural disasters, common illnesses or certain circumstances take place, injuring or taking the life of some and sparing the lives of others. It is common to have remorseful feelings to the tragedy known as survivor's guilt. This reaction carries symptoms as a result of a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While looking at some of the symptoms and causes, this discussion will focus on tips for coping with the feelings and understanding when it is time to seek more professional guidance.

What Is Survivor's Guilt?

Living through a traumatic event triggers in some people emotions of guilt for living through the circumstance when others did not. This becomes even more a factor when the individual knows one of those who did not survive and experiences traumatic grief. Research has uncovered a couple of interesting points involved in the development of survivor's guilt.

  • There are certain factors in an individual's past, such as trauma or alcohol abuse, which can increase the risk of having such feelings.
  • Holding certain beliefs about the role played by the survivor in the traumatic event, like wrong-doing or neglect, can increase the risk of having such feelings.
  • Some studies link the personality types of submissiveness and introversion to an increased risk of experiencing survivor's guilt.

Coping With Survivor's Guilt

Several strategies have proven effective in recovering from survivor's guilt and other trauma-related symptoms. Research has shown that about a third of people will continue to have PTSD symptoms for three or more years. Once someone feels they cannot cope on their own, or if the symptoms are severe, it is important to seek continuing professional treatment. Here are some tips for coping.

Accept Your Feelings as Legitimate

Although survivor's guilt feelings are not always logical, they are a recognized response to trauma by the medical and psychological fields. Do not fall into the trap of thinking, "I shouldn't feel like this." Accept and allow the feelings to surface. Take the time to process what it means to feel grief, fear, loss, and guilt, especially when they accompany a traumatic event. Mental activities can be just as important as physical actions. Start by trying to process things in an organized manner.

Share Your Feeling With Trusted People

While it is not wise to open deep feelings with everyone, sharing feelings with a select group of family or friends can be helpful and strengthening. If people close to you do not understand, seek support from a relevant group of people. Both face-to-face support groups and online communities provide an atmosphere where a survivor can connect, feel safe, and express themselves.

couple holding hands in comfort

Practice Personal Self-Care

Experiencing trauma and loss produces frightening and overwhelming emotions. Survivors can easily cease doing activities that support their mental and physical health. Benefit from activities that not only feel good, but contribute to your overall sense of well-being. Some of those activities include:

  • Eating healthy, regular meals
  • Taking baths and supporting cleanliness
  • Ggetting proper sleep and rest
  • Spending time exercising and having regular physical activity
  • Making connections with people
  • Reading or participating in events which will stimulate your mental activity
  • Doing creative things like journaling your feelings, creating art or photography, producing music
  • Research has shown it can be helpful to avoid alcohol and drugs during this time

Find Concrete Ways to Honor Those Lost in the Trauma

Though funerals or vigils for a loved one lost makes this easier, apps like Zoom, Facebook, and websites make online memorials a real possibility. Funeral homes and other charitable organizations can help connect you to others if the event was a local tragedy.

Donate to Charity

One of the feelings that persists for many survivors is a struggle between the "haves" and the "have nots." Donating to a charity, especially one that serves those in a similar traumatic situation, can lead to positive healing.

Do Good to Others

More than just empty words, the "Golden Rule" helps take the mind from self-centered thoughts to a healthier perspective that considered others. Some things that can make a positive difference include:

  • Volunteering time at local charities or organizations
  • Donating blood
  • Making charitable donations during times of need and crisis, like natural disaster response teams
  • Sending care packages to friends or loved ones who are away
  • Donating time or items for use in children's hospitals
  • Offer to help in the foster care service industry
  • Seek places to serve in the nursing care or hospice care industry

Connect With Your Loved Ones

Living with regret tends to make one feel isolated and alienated. Rather than stepping away from loved ones, which may be the natural reaction, make this time an opportunity to mend or strengthen relationships within your family. Traumatic events can open doors to healing broken connections. The steps toward others may need to be small, but the healing will prove monumental.

Healing and Recovery Can Occur Over Time

People who survive traumatic events can begin the process of healing and recovery. Symptoms of survivor's guilt do not have to persist throughout life. By using coping mechanisms and seeking professional guidance, when necessary, fulling and meaningful life can be re-established.

Survivor’s Guilt: Simple Strategies to Cope and Overcome