Veterans face many trials on active duty, constantly pushing their bodies and minds to the limit while navigating intense, life-threatening situations in active war zones. While surviving armed conflicts is a reason to celebrate, experiencing these situations can still cause intense emotional distress, especially if other members of the unit are not as lucky. 

Survivor’s guilt is a common and intense emotional stress that many veterans face in the wake of these experiences. Understanding how it continues to impact veterans long after they have been discharged from active duty is instrumental in better understanding its lasting effects and finding the proper help to process such a difficult emotional state.

What Is Survivor’s Guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is a unique type of guilt that follows an individual after life-threatening situations. Not only does survivor’s guilt involve the immediate physical and emotional damage of these stresses, but how these events also affect the lives of others, particularly those who did not survive the same event. 

Whether an individual was left injured or unharmed, one may still feel guilty about their own survival. Survivor’s guilt is especially common among veterans of the armed forces or members of other high-risk professions, such as first responders. 

Survivor’s guilt can result from any kind of life-threatening event, including car accidents, natural disasters, or medical traumas, such as surgical procedures or life-threatening diagnoses like cancer. Those struggling with survivor’s guilt face many difficult emotions and self-destructive beliefs, feeling guilty about their own survival or at fault for why others did not. 

While those suffering from survivor’s guilt also commonly face symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), it is not necessarily a prerequisite. Survivor’s guilt is still an exceptionally tumultuous trial on its own. 

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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Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt

Veterans of the armed forces face many life-threatening situations regardless of one’s particular branch of the military. While the situations in which one survived may differ, there are some common symptoms that those who are experiencing survivor’s guilt share. Some of these symptoms include: 

  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Mood swings or sudden anger
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nightmares 
  • Flashbacks
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Compromised feelings of self-worth

Survivor’s guilt may also cause an individual to look back on the situation and fill their minds with “what ifs” or things that they “should have” done, despite how unrealistic this may be. They may also believe that they could have somehow changed the outcome of the situation. 

Thinking back to these events, an individual may convince themself that there was more that they could have done. They may also feel as if they could have prevented the tragedy from occurring, thus placing the blame of loss on themselves.

Members of the armed forces may constantly replay the events in their minds, fantasizing about how they may have been able to save their brothers and sisters in arms. This can lead to even greater feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, and self-blame for these events, all compromising an individual’s sense of self-worth.

The Continued Effects of Survivor’s Guilt

The impact of survivor’s guilt doesn’t end with these symptoms or when exiting the military. Rather, it can continue to impact an individual throughout many other areas of their life. Those struggling with this type of guilt may engage in self-destructive behaviors to cope. 

For some, thinking less of their own life can lead to an increase in risky and self-destructive behavior as an individual may not value their own emotional health or physical safety. Others may take these intense feelings of depression, anxiety, and guilt and attempt to placate them by any means necessary. This often leads to dangerous self-medication strategies, such as the use of addictive substances like drugs and alcohol to avoid these negative feelings, leading to addiction

Survivor’s guilt can also change how an individual perceives themself and the world around them, with feelings of depression, anxiety, guilt, shame, and more, affecting every facet of their daily lives. Challenging survivor’s guilt and the traumatic experiences and emotional needs that come with it is a difficult endeavor. For veterans of the armed forces, finding the right approach to overcoming the effects of survivor’s guilt is crucial for building a healthy civilian life following their time in the military. 

Embracing Forgiveness in Sobriety
Embracing Forgiveness in Sobriety

Forgiveness is a complex part of the recovery journey. To take the first step in forgiving yourself and reconnecting with loved ones, call (866) 390-5070.

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Pursuing Professional Help

There is nothing easy about overcoming the effects of survivor’s guilt, and it is not uncommon to have reservations about pursuing treatment at a center for alcohol and drug treatment. However, these intense symptoms can continue to develop, affecting daily life, mood, and health. 

Survivor’s guilt challenges an individual with their own guilt and mortality and can feel incredibly unfair. Professional help to engage in effective healing practices is often necessary. Finding a community of peers and professionals can help an individual embrace essential and effective healing techniques. 

Practicing forgiveness, allowing oneself to grieve their losses, and learning to relinquish self-blame all take time. Dedicated veteran programs with trauma-informed professionals can empower individuals struggling with survivor’s guilt to effectively challenge their thoughts and emotions while confronting any self-destructive coping strategies that may have manifested as a result of their traumatic experience. 

Survivor’s guilt is a complex and overwhelming experience, and navigating the associated traumas and emotions takes time and professional care. At Hawaii Island Recovery, we understand the unique challenges of survivor’s guilt, especially how they relate to veterans of the armed forces. Our dedicated veteran program is ready for you to take the first step on your healing journey, addressing your unique experiences, perspective, needs, and goals in recovery. From helping you navigate your experiences to addressing the use of drugs, alcohol, or other unhealthy coping strategies, we are committed to healing your entire self, from your physical and emotional needs to your spiritual needs and goals. Your time with us is personalized to your needs while engaging with peers and trauma-informed professionals. For more information on how our rehab in Hawaii can personalize your time with us, call Hawaii Island Recovery at (866) 390-5070.