Guilt is a powerful emotion that impacts many aspects of daily life. From bringing ever-present feelings of depression or shame to fundamentally altering one’s perception of the world, guilt can easily build until it is no longer easy—or healthy—to contain. 

Survivor’s guilt is one of the most difficult forms this can take, presenting its unique hurdles and difficulties while carrying many dangerous connotations if unaddressed. Not only can carrying around guilt be drastically taxing on one’s emotional state, but it can also beget the use of addictive substances in order to quell the extremely negative feelings that may be present.

What Is Survivor’s Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is a difficult and complex form of guilt that causes extreme amounts of stress, depression, feelings of helplessness, and more as a result of an individual surviving an event when others did not.

Survivor’s guilt is usually most associated with disasters and is especially prevalent in first responders or members of the armed forces. Surviving armed, violent conflicts leaves one filled with stress and trauma, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the incident. Surviving these traumatic events can be further complicated as one may believe that they either shouldn’t have survived themselves or somehow didn’t deserve to survive when unfairly comparing themself to others. These complicated and disastrous modes of thinking are common for those processing survivor’s guilt. However, this is not the only way in which survivor’s guilt can manifest.

Others may feel the effects of survivor’s guilt as a result of deadly car crashes or even as a result of illness. Any kind of loss of life can prompt guilt in those who survived, and this guilt can be a completely crippling, debilitating feeling that fundamentally alters one’s worldview and even their self-worth and coping strategies.

Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt

These feelings of guilt can present themselves in a number of unique ways, including: 

  • Flashbacks
  • Insomnia
  • Nightmares
  • Anxiety
  • Panic
  • Depression
  • Constantly “replaying” the event in one’s head
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Addiction

While one’s personal symptoms will be unique to their circumstance, they all present a very real hurdle to overcome and, left unaddressed, can continue to develop.

Survivor’s Guilt and Addiction

The use of addictive substances is a common, if incredibly dangerous, method of trying to self-medicate to process one’s symptoms of trauma and guilt. The trying emotional state created by survivor’s guilt can leave an individual seeking respite from the flashbacks and debilitating feelings it presents. Drugs and alcohol may purport to be a fast-acting solution that allows an individual to distance themselves from their own thoughts. However, their use can actually be to one’s detriment, creating unhealthy perceptions and compounding feelings of anxiety, depression, guilt, and addiction.

Survivor guilt and addiction

There is no safe way to engage with addictive substances, especially when they are being used to push down extreme emotions. Drugs and alcohol only create an unhealthy way to ignore these feelings and do nothing to actually process the guilt continuing to build and impact one’s life. Instead, their use creates a complex and destructive dynamic that further promotes self-destructive behavior and thinking. Addressing addiction and survivor’s guilt in tandem is necessary to truly begin healing.

Addressing Survivor’s Guilt 

For those suffering from addiction and survivor’s guilt, it can be incredibly difficult to overcome one without addressing the other. Working to overcome survivor’s guilt without acknowledging the role that addictive substances have played in exacerbating these feelings can create ill-prepared coping strategies, while addressing addiction without the underlying guilt can leave the sources and reasons for one’s use unaddressed. Only by addressing them concurrently and understanding how the two continue to inform each other can a truly transformative plan for healing begin to take form.

Coping with survivor’s guilt involves accepting and being mindful of one’s feelings, and the use of addictive substances acts directly counter to this need for emotional awareness.

Taking a Step Toward Healing

Traumatic events spurring survivor’s guilt have to be addressed in a personal, unique way. Alongside the need for professional detox and recovery, the road to a healthy, sober future can feel very complex. However, there is nobody who is beyond healing. Engaging in a personalized, trauma-informed recovery can provide the best route toward a healthy future.

Despite the isolating feelings that guilt and addiction can cause, one is never alone in their journey, and finding the right community of peers and professionals can create a powerful beginning to a healthier future. Doing things for others, connecting with peers, and practicing gratitude are all crucial for coping with survivor’s guilt. Engaging in a dedicated, sober environment can allow each individual to explore these ideas alongside understanding peers as they process their symptoms of trauma and survivor’s guilt.

Survivor’s guilt presents a plethora of “what ifs” and “should haves” that can be wholly detrimental to one’s mental and emotional health. Professional help to process these thoughts and address the use of addictive substances is necessary to engage in a truly transformative, meaningful recovery process.

Survivor’s guilt is incredibly difficult and can impact every aspect of one’s daily life. The guilt and trauma, coupled with any destructive self-medication attempts such as the use of drugs or alcohol, make a dedicated approach to recovery through trauma-informed practices and a supportive community a necessity. At Hawaii Island Recovery, we understand the unique ways in which trauma, PTSD, and survivor’s guilt impact the use of addictive substances, and we are prepared to create a dedicated recovery plan tailored to you to address how guilt has impacted your life. From detox to residential care and continued outpatient treatment, we can help you find the best, most appropriate alcohol and drug rehab programs in Hawaii, all while addressing the continued struggles of survivor’s guilt. For more information on how our unique rehab programs can help you, call to speak to us today at (866) 390-5070.