Trauma: Understanding Survivor Guilt

Survivor guilt is common in people who have experienced a traumatic event or loss. For those who internalize blame, suffer from depression, have low self-esteem, lack adequate social support or have poor coping skills, survivor guilt can be more prevalent. And, interestingly, survivor guilt can happen with children simply because they have not lived long enough to develop coping skills. It is important that parents and family members be aware that someone they love might be experiencing survivor guilt after a traumatic event or loss.

People often wonder why they survive while others do not, and they feel guilty. One study found that 90% of people who had survived an event in which others died had feelings of survivor guilt. Another study examined feelings of survivor guilt in lung cancer survivors and found that over half of the participants experienced survivor guilt.

According to the Mayo Clinic, psychological symptoms of survivor guilt can include intrusive memories, nightmares, avoiding thinking about the traumatic experience, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, difficulty sleeping or concentrating and self-destructive behaviors. Coping with survivor guilt can easily become maladaptive if it involves any of these.

There are many healthy ways to cope with and process traumatic events and losses. First, remember that it is normal to feel guilty. Be gentle with yourself. It also helps to turn to those who love you and to, somehow, find meaning in your life after a traumatic event or loss. It is challenging to connect with others. It is also challenging to find meaning. However, connecting and finding meaning can help process survivor guilt.

Psychotherapy utilizes a wide array of methods to help people heal from traumatic events and losses, reconnect with others and find meaning and purpose. The nCenter counseling staff is experienced in dealing with trauma and well-equipped to help you begin your healing journey. We offer EMDR and Somatic Experiencing to process trauma, and Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples who may need support in connecting after a traumatic event or loss.

Whatever you choose, remember that you are not alone and reach out to friends and family and if needed, a professional who can support you through this difficult time.


Karalee Kothe, nCenter neurofeedback technician