Survivor’s guilt is known to affect survivors of any situation that is considered as traumatic to the sufferers. It may also be known as imagined guilt as sufferers tend to blame themselves for surviving something while others did not and somehow think it is their fault even when they could not have been able to control the situation.
Survivor’s guilt can arise out of any situation from a mildly threatening one such as lay offs at work to a life threatening one such as a motor accident or natural disaster. The closer the victims are to the survivor, the worse the guilt, as the survivor knows these people personally and can relate to them. Instead of celebrating or rejoicing in their survival, they are plagued with negative feeling for having made it when so many did not.
With the newly published Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV), survivor’s syndrome is no longer considered a separate disorder but rather one of the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. The disorder was initially identified in the 1960s among holocaust survivors. Therapists went on to identify similar symptoms in survivors of natural disasters, combat, layoffs, rescue workers who fail to save some victims, among fellow therapists who start to relate overwhelmingly to the suffering of their patients, and other traumatic conditions.
Those suffering from the survivor’s syndrome exhibit certain symptoms such as depression, anxiety, panic, physical problems, sleep problems, self blame and guilt. They start to disregard their own survival and concentrate more on the loss that occurred, and in extreme cases they begin to wish they had died instead, especially in cases where the person who rescued the survivor ended up being the dead one.
The best way of treating this syndrome, is to prevent it from happening in the first place. This means that grief therapy should be administered as soon as possible. However, if the guilt has already taken root, then therapists will try to acknowledge it and the reasons for its existence. The methods may vary but the end goal is to allow the patient to realize that they are not the cause of what happened but rather victims themselves. This helps dissipate the guilt allowing them to grieve the loss fully and then move on with their lives knowing that there is nothing they could have done to save those that are lost.
While the blame and guilt is imagined, the pain and discomfort of those plagued by survivor’s guilt is very real. It hinders them from moving on with their lives as they are stuck in a past that they can not change and is not really their fault. But as we all know, perception is reality and this sadly becomes their reality. As a care giver, it is your job to support those affected and create an environment that allows them to let go. Non professionals and those who have never suffered this before can not begin to understand what causes it, so if you identify someone close to you exhibiting certain symptoms, do not be quick to judge. Instead, have them see a therapist so that they can be helped.