Surviving, Yet Living With Guilt – What Can You Do to Cope?

A sad, stressed looking male - Surviving, Yet Living With Survivor Guilt

Have you experienced a traumatic event and are now struggling with feelings of survivor guilt?

It can be challenging to have lived through such an experience when others did not.
Knowing how to cope can help you with getting through this difficult time.

What is survivor guilt?

Survivor guilt is when you experience guilty feelings associated with having lived through a trauma. For example:

  • Suffering a car accident
  • Becoming the victim of a crime
  • Experiencing an act of terrorism
  • Being in or affected by a war
  • Enduring a disaster such as a flood, hurricane, or earthquake

The term survivor implies that others died during the event while you lived. The result is that you may feel guilty and even shame for having made it through the experience when others did not.

These feelings can manifest themselves in several ways.

What are the symptoms of survivor guilt?

There are many symptoms associate several with survivor guilt. These include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Nightmares, especially of the event
  • Flashback to what happened
  • Depression
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Thoughts of suicide

Although these are difficult symptoms to endure, there are ways that you can manage survivor guilt.

How?

Don’t hold back your feelings

After surviving a tragedy, there will be a lot of emotions swirling around. Allow yourself to feel those emotions.

Don’t be tempted to hold them in because you think you need to put up a brave face. If you do, those feelings will only linger and in the long-term cause more damage. Rather than helping you move forward from the event, denying your emotions will keep you stuck in it.

There are healthy ways that you can express your emotions without them overwhelming you. You might find that activities such as writing, making music or creating art provide a safe way for you to express your feelings. Whatever you do, know that it is okay to acknowledge that you are hurting right now.

Take care of yourself

When you are coping with the feelings linked to survivor guilt, it’s not uncommon for other aspects of your life to fall by the wayside. Depression is one of the common symptoms of survivor guilt, so you might well lose motivation to do anything. Things that you once enjoyed doing might have lost their pleasure and have become more difficult.

Yet, you need to take care of yourself while you get through this gruelling time. For example:

  • Maintain a healthy diet
  • Get enough sleep each night
  • Watch out for oversleeping or insomnia
  • Exercise
  • Stick to your schedule of taking prescription medication if you already take them
  • Avoid drug use or drinking too much alcohol

Find closure

Another thing that you can do to cope with survivor guilt is to find closure through a ceremony. Ceremonies are important in human culture to mark new beginnings, celebrate milestones, and to mourn the passing of others.

Funerals can serve this purpose, but they don’t always create the closure needed. Instead, you can create your own ceremony. Some examples include:

  • Building a marker in the woods, reciting a passage, then scattering the marker
  • Visiting the deceased’s favourite place
  • Writing a letter to the person you have lost, then burning it

Keep in mind that a ceremony can also mark a transitional moment for yourself.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

While there are many things that you can do on your own to cope with survivor guilt, it is essential to get help from others, too. Isolating yourself only exacerbates the problems associated with survivor guilt.

Consider these ideas:

  • Talk to close friends and family members about the experience
  • Reach out to other survivors of the event
  • Join online groups to find others with similar struggles
  • Take part in face-to-face support groups
  • Talk to a therapist who understands survivor’s guilt and grief

Feeling guilt associated with surviving a traumatic experience can be crushing. However, there are many things in your control that might help you cope.

Never be afraid to reach out for help from others. It is essential to know that you are not alone. There are others out there that have similar life experiences and understand what is going on within you.

Getting further help

If you feel you are at risk of suicide, get help immediately. You can call the Samaritans on 116 123 24-hours a day. Check out our crisis management page for further resources that can help in a crisis.

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