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What Is Survivor Guilt?

People who live through traumatic events that others did not survive often have guilt.
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  • Written By: S. Ashraf
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 18 April 2014
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Survivor guilt, also known as survivors guilt, is a psychological state that might happen to an individual who lives through a painful or traumatic event that others did not survive. As a psychological condition, survivor guilt was not identified until the 1960s. It was first taken note of by psychologists studying people who survived the Holocaust of World War II. In succeeding decades, it was observed in others who lived through traumatic happenings, and it became recognized as a condition that could be applied in a general way to all humans. Some victims of trauma might question why something bad happened to them, but people suffering from survivors guilt often question why something worse — particularly death — did not happen to them.

The symptoms of survivor guilt vary with the person and the circumstances but characteristically include elements of emotional instability, disturbed sleep, nightmares and social withdrawal, as well as depression, anxiety and physical complaints. Emotionally, a person suffering from survivor guilt might feel full of shame, sad, powerless, helpless, worthless and undeserving. In the face of the event, his or her basic sense of self has been significantly altered. The survivor might even think that he or she was responsible for what happened.

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Generally speaking, mental health professionals view survivor guilt as a psychological mechanism that some individuals might use to help them cope with the event. It might act as a way to keep the experience from becoming meaningless. Survivors guilt might also serve as a method to punish the survivor for surviving and as a defense against the feeling of helplessness.

Initially, survivor guilt was viewed by mental health professionals as a specific disorder, but it has come to be recognized as an important symptom or warning sign of the presence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This form of guilt is often thought of as happening only to people who survive a personally life-threatening experience, such as an epidemic, an accident, a natural disaster or combat. In fact, however, survivor guilt might also happen to people who receive an organ transplant, live through a downsizing when co-workers are laid off, must cope with the suicide of a friend or family member or other experience other difficult, but not necessarily life-threatening, events.

People coping with survivor guilt might benefit from consulting a counselor or psychologist who has been trained in grief therapy. It might be helpful for them to talk with friends or family members to reduce feelings of helplessness or withdrawal. Returning to daily routines as quickly as possible can also begin to restore feelings of normality and self-worth.

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