Military life is filled with profound experiences, and there is no shortage of challenges for military personnel to overcome. From constantly pushing their bodies and minds in training to the stresses of an active warzone, military life has lasting effects on each individual, impacting veterans well into their civilian lives. Guilt and shame are common challenges for veterans to overcome, and these intense feelings are both incredibly prevalent and devastating for veterans. For some, they can even disrupt the development of daily routines in civilian life. Understanding the impact of guilt and shame on each veteran’s life is paramount for challenging these feelings and creating a new, healthier lifestyle.

The Effects of Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame can manifest in veterans for a multitude of reasons. For many, harrowing experiences from their time in an active warzone are incredibly profound. The loss of brothers and sisters in arms or these close peers experiencing an injury in the line of duty can bring these difficult feelings of guilt and shame. Moreover, it is common for veterans to wonder if there was something that they could have done differently in the moment or feel shame about a particular outcome or action taken while in the line of duty. 

How Does Trauma Relate to Substance Abuse?

Guilt can also manifest as survivor’s guilt, as veterans may blame themselves for the transpiring of traumatic events, even if they were not in control of the situation or had no other options available. Regardless of how guilt and shame manifest, they can have profound effects on a veteran’s civilian life. Even unknowingly, these emotions can disrupt entire routines. 

Some of the signs that a veteran loved one may be experiencing intense shame or guilt in daily life can include the following:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Compromised sense of self-worth
  • Self-deprecating language
  • An increase in risk-taking behaviors
  • Constantly reliving traumatic events
  • The use of drugs or alcohol as a coping strategy

Veterans who are experiencing intense feelings of guilt or shame as a result of their experiences in the military may find it difficult to relinquish these feelings at all, experiencing them constantly throughout the day in various ways. Further, some may adopt an isolated lifestyle in an effort to address these emotions, which can further complicate healing and recovery.

Guilt, Shame, and Their Effects on Veteran Substance Use
Guilt, Shame, and Their Effects on Veteran Substance Use

Guilt and shame are profound, difficult feelings. Read more about Guilt, Shame, and Their Effects on Veteran Substance Use.

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The Dangers of Unaddressed Guilt and Shame

Guilt and shame are intense emotions that can be incredibly difficult to overcome, birthing further mental health disorders and challenges. This can also birth unhealthy coping strategies, such as the use of drugs or alcohol. Self-medicating practices, however, can quickly develop into substance use disorder (SUD) as veterans become reliant on these substances to feel “better” or even “normal.” 

Others may begin to wholly ingratiate self-destructive beliefs stemming from feelings of guilt and shame. Some may feel such intense blame that they feel they do not “deserve” a healthier or happier life, compromising recovery efforts before they have begun and further informing each veteran’s daily routine.

Unaddressed feelings of guilt or shame can also further inform the emotional health of veterans by bringing thoughts of suicidal ideation. From exacerbating feelings of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use to introducing life-threatening thoughts or ideas, learning how to effectively address shame and guilt among veterans is paramount. 

Identifying Self-Destructive Lifestyles

While feelings of shame and guilt are difficult to navigate, it is also important to identify the lifestyles that may be dictated by such feelings. Some common lifestyle traits that veterans experiencing intense shame and guilt may include:

  • Unwillingness to engage in social activities or social withdrawal
  • Constantly putting others’ needs before their own, even to their own detriment
  • Reluctance to care for own personal needs, compromising personal hygiene, physical exercise, or diet
  • Inconsistent or lack of sleeping routines and staying up late
  • Create daily routines or schedules when drugs or alcohol would be available or used
  • Dismissing previous hobbies, interests, or traditions
  • Lack of faith in their ability to accomplish professional tasks or responsibilities, compromising professional life, ambition, or even attendance

Veterans experiencing intense feelings of shame and guilt may also begin each day expecting to experience such challenges, facilitating a cycle of negative emotions and self-destructive coping mechanisms. Coupled with isolation, a lack of belief in themselves, and more, reaching out to veterans to address persistent feelings of shame and guilt and their impact on civilian life is necessary to challenge these self-destructive behaviors and thoughts. 

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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Reaching Out to Veterans Overcoming Shame and Guilt

Loved ones are crucial in helping veterans challenge prevalent feelings of shame and guilt. Creating a space that normalizes emotional discourse can be instrumental in taking this first step toward change. Fostering an open and honest atmosphere at home without prying into veteran life can help veterans be more willing to open up about their own challenges with trusted support, like family. Supports can even scaffold such ideas by sharing their own challenges and modeling the efficacy of these atmospheres. Others may educate themselves on these challenges to help veteran loved ones feel heard in their challenges while deconstructing stigmas.

Treatment for veterans struggling with ptsd

Professional, veteran-specific treatment programs and Hawaii rehabilitation are also instrumental in helping veterans overcome shame, guilt, and other mental health disorders or substance use that may accompany such feelings. Dedicated treatment is a transformative experience that seeks to address the sources of these feelings for veterans and their unique experiences, and the lifestyles that inform self-destructive practices. Committing to a community of peers in solidarity of effective healing can empower veterans to identify and overcome the self-destructive lifestyles informed by shame and guilt for a healthy civilian life. 

There is nothing easy about navigating life as a veteran, and shame and guilt can have profound, lasting effects on each veteran’s lifestyle until professionally addressed. At Hawaii Island Recovery, we are committed to helping you find your best approach to a healthy and fulfilling civilian life, addressing not just the effects of shame and guilt but their sources or self-destructive coping strategies that may have been birthed as a result. We combine proven, trauma-informed therapies with a community of peers in our veteran-specific programs and fulfilling cultural and spiritual practices with our unique approach to Hawaii rehabilitation. For more information on how we can personalize your time with us, call to speak to us today at (866) 390-5070.