Guilt and shame are profound, difficult feelings. It can be challenging for anyone to navigate the lasting effects of these feelings in daily life. For veterans specifically, these feelings are all too common. 

Guilt and shame can impact an individual’s mood and often influence the use of drugs or alcohol. Inevitably, learning to overcome feelings of guilt and shame, as well as their effects on the use of addictive substances, is a difficult task. However, participation in dedicated veteran recovery programs can help individuals overcome these feelings and better understand how they impact their daily civilian life. 

Whether an individual is just beginning their recovery journey as a veteran or is continuing to manage their mental health and sobriety, understanding the intersection between difficult emotions and substance use is crucial. 

The Prevalence of Guilt and Shame for Veterans

Guilt and shame are common experiences among veterans of the armed forces for many reasons. Some veterans may experience guilt as a result of politics surrounding the war or from the memories of being in an active warzone. The intense, life-threatening nature of war can have lasting effects on mental health, with trauma and moral injury persisting well into civilian life. Feeling compelled to act against an individual’s moral compass, witnessing other military personnel act against their morals, or being unable or unwilling to stop such actions can all bring persistent feelings of guilt and shame. 

Coping With Survivor’s Guilt
Coping With Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor's guilt is difficult to process and impacts everything from one's emotional health to substance use. Learn more!

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Others may struggle with intense symptoms of survivor’s guilt, characterized by depression, trauma, and stress that comes with surviving a life-threatening event. Losing brothers and sisters in arms will always be tragic and traumatic. Questioning why an individual survived these circumstances where others did not can bring intense feelings of guilt, shame, and much more. 

From trauma to moral injury and survivor’s guilt, the lasting effects of an individual’s time on active duty can stay with them into veteran life. Unfortunately, these circumstances negatively impact health and behaviors throughout their life as a veteran and can have destructive effects if they are left unaddressed. Understanding the prevalence of guilt and shame as a result of the unique experiences veterans face is the first step in creating a healthy approach to recovery and daily life. 

The Effects of Shame and Guilt

Shame and guilt are not only common experiences for veterans of the armed forces but are also dangerous. These feelings rarely stay isolated and inform other thoughts and behaviors throughout daily life. For some, these intense feelings can bring intense episodes of depression or anxiety. Others may feel their effects continue to build into suicidal ideation, which can have tragic consequences. 

Some other common symptoms of guilt and shame include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of heaviness or lethargy
  • Difficulty finding joy 
  • Recurring or invasive thoughts
  • Emotional numbness or melancholy
  • Indecisiveness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
  • Compromised self-esteem

The Use of Addictive Substances

There is no easy way to address feelings of shame or guilt, and it is common for veterans to look to any option to placate their emotional effects. The use of drugs or alcohol is a common way an individual may attempt to self-medicate when faced with overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt. 

Drugs and alcohol are mind-altering substances, and their use can significantly affect the mind. For some, this may purport to provide a degree of respite from feelings of trauma or racing thoughts that may regularly manifest. Commonly, veterans may not realize the extent of the effects drugs and alcohol are having on their bodies and minds. Likewise, an individual’s tumultuous emotional state may make it difficult to identify when the use of these substances is becoming dangerously problematic. 

However, some veterans may be aware of the adverse effects of drugs and alcohol and will engage with these substances anyway. This is not typically done out of a wish to continue drinking or using drugs but rather out of feelings of desperation or hopelessness. 

No matter the case, using alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate can quickly lead to the development of substance use disorder (SUD). Overcoming SUD is a complicated journey. Addressing a veteran’s use of these substances, as well as underlying feelings of shame, guilt, trauma, and more is essential for establishing long-lasting recovery.

The Continued Battle With Survivor's Guilt
The Continued Battle With Survivor’s Guilt

Survivor's guilt is a complex and common trial for many veterans. Learn about survivor's guilt and how it affects you by calling (866) 390-5070 today.

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Navigating Shame, Guilt, and Substance Use

Dedicated recovery programs are about more than learning to cease the use of drugs or alcohol. Rather, they are comprehensive programs meant to address the effects of addictive substances and a person’s personal experiences that informed their use. 

Education and support to address feelings of shame and guilt are just as important as coping with urges or cravings for each veteran’s recovery journey. A specific, dedicated veteran center for drug and alcohol treatment is essential for receiving the necessary educated support to overcome these unique challenges veterans face. 

Shame and guilt are pervasive parts of any recovery journey, and there is no easy way to address and overcome their effects. These feelings can imbed themselves, changing a person’s perspective, worldview, and attitude. However, recovery is always possible, and professional treatment to challenge the effects of shame and guilt in daily life is necessary to establish a healthy, fulfilling civilian life. 

Guilt and shame are prevalent emotions among veterans. Professional treatment is required to overcome these emotions and any use of drugs or alcohol that may accompany such feelings. At Hawaii Island Recovery, we champion each veteran to challenge and overcome the unique trials they face each day to create fulfilling, healthy, and sober lives. Our Hawaii recovery center is dedicated to challenging and overcoming your use of drugs or alcohol. We offer a comprehensive Hawaii rehabilitation program that can be curated to your needs and goals, treating the whole self for a new, healthy life. For more information on how we can create a treatment plan that is right for you, call (866) 390-5070.