Trauma is an unfortunate but unavoidable part of the human experience. There are many different types and many different outcomes of trauma. By extension, there are many survivors of trauma. These survivors can be left with much confusion and inner conflict that can result in guilt lead to addiction. Here we will look at what is known as Survivors Guilt. We’ll examine what it is, what the symptoms are, and whether or not the survivor’s guilt leads to addiction.
Survivor’s Guilt: What is it?
Whenever there is a traumatic event, precisely one where there is a loss of life, there may be survivors left in its wake. If one survives where others did not, the survivor may be left with a lot of emotional conflict and inner questions about why they were lucky enough to survive where others fell. Additionally, survivors may wonder if acting differently might have saved some, if not all, of those who perished in the event. This can lead to a lot of guilt about the seemingly random nature of life and questions about the fairness of it all. This is labeled as survivor’s guilt.
Common Causes of Survivors Guilt
- Mass shooting survivors
- First Responders
- Witnesses to a traumatic event
- War veterans
- Holocaust survivors
- 9/11 survivors
- Cancer survivors
- Health scare survivors
- Organ transplant recipients
- Vehicular accident survivors
- Natural Disaster survivors
- Family members to those suffering from a hereditary condition
- Those who lost someone to suicide
- Parents who have outlived a child
Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt
When a person comes through significant trauma and feels guilty about it, they are suffering from survivor’s guilt. This includes: surviving something that another person or persons did not or re-thinking what they did or did not do during the event and believing it would have changed the outcome. All the symptoms of survivor’s guilt are very closely aligned with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD and survivor’s guilt can both lead to the sufferer having a pessimistic worldview, seeing the world as an unfair place. Major symptoms of both survivor’s guilt and PTSD include, but are not limited to:
- Having flashbacks of the trauma
- Obsessive thoughts about the event
- General irritability and anger that may seem out of character for the person suffering
- Feeling helpless or disconnected in everyday life
- Lack of motivation
- Insomnia or other sleep issues
- Stomach discomfort
- Isolating oneself from friends, family, society
- Suicidal thoughts
Certain people are more susceptible to survivor’s guilt such as victims of child abuse, history of psychiatric problems, anxiety, depression, an unstable support system (lack of family and friends), and pre-existing history of drug abuse.
How to Cope
Some people recover from survivor’s guilt gradually within a year or so. Thirty percent of sufferers do not and may require professional help, especially if symptoms persist for longer than three years. Here are some tips on coping with the guilt:
- Accept the feelings
- Connect with friends, family or support groups
- Mindfulness/deep breathing techniques
- Self-care: meditation, aromatherapy, resting, baths
Does Guilt Lead to Addiction?
Sometimes, the persistent nature of both survivor’s guilt and PTSD may lead to depression and other inner conflicts. Treatment for PTSD and depression often involves medication. If not monitored properly, the use of medication can lead to overuse and slowly slide into an addiction. When medication is not used, many people suffering from survivor’s guilt and/or PTSD often turn to recreational drugs and alcohol to mask the pain. If the pain is not addressed at its source, the use of substances can quickly turn to addictions. In these ways, the survivor’s guilt can quietly but dangerously lead to an addiction.
If you or someone you know lived through major trauma and are now suffering from either survivor’s guilt or PTSD, please know that there are people and places willing and ready to help you. One of those places is Ocean Hills Recovery. We have many different options depending on the severity of your individual needs, and we are always willing to build a unique plan to fit those needs.
About the author:
Nicole earned her doctoral degree in Psychology with an emphasis on marriage and family therapy at California School of Professional Psychology. Her doctoral thesis was a grounded theory study exploring the role of alienation and connectedness in the life course of addiction. She specializes in treating addiction and trauma. She is certified in DBT and EMDR, two of the most highly regarded evidence-based methods in psychotherapy. Dr. Doss is a strong LGBT advocate and provides open and affirming support to her LGBT clients.
Dr. Doss’s earlier education included graduating cum laude from the University of California, Irvine in June of 2007 with a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology. While there, she received honors recognition by Psi Chi and Golden Key honor societies.
Nicole has been working with alcoholics and addicts in our California drug and alcohol rehab center as an advisor and counselor for many years. She is passionate about providing quality counseling and care to her clients. Her main focus is on integrating the 12 Step and disease models of addiction with experiential therapeutic theory. She is married to Greg; they have two adorable sons together and an energetic yellow Labrador Retriever.