Survivor’s guilt is a psychological condition developed when someone survives a traumatic event that someone else didn’t. The emotions associated with survivor’s guilt are often distressing and filled with remorse. Surviving a tragic event is typically something you’d be happy about, but it’s hard to feel thankful that you’re alive without feeling guilty that someone else isn’t. This can be especially difficult for first responders as they often experience it due to the nature of their work.
Survivor’s Guilt as a First Responder
First responders witness tragic disasters daily while putting their lives on the line for others. Sometimes, they might do everything they can to save someone and still cannot. Surviving others in a tragic disaster is not an easy feeling to live with. Knowing that you could not save someone’s life can often make you feel helpless as a first responder.
Dealing with the emotional toll of survivor’s guilt as a first responder is not easily managed or treated. Their occupation doesn’t allow them much room or time to emotionally process a tragedy before experiencing another one. Often, first responders refuse counseling or treatments because they believe they’re tough enough to heal on their own. Many will lie to themselves and deny experiencing survivor’s guilt because they don’t want to face it.
Signs and Symptoms of Survivor’s Guilt
If you have survivor’s guilt, you might experience the following:
- Vivid flashbacks to the event
- Intrusive thoughts
- Suicidal thoughts or suicidal ideation
- Lack of concentration
- Increased irritability and anger
- Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Trouble sleeping
- Lack of motivation
- Abrupt mood swings
- Obsessive, recurring thoughts about the event
- Social isolation and detachment
If you or a loved one are experiencing survivor’s guilt, it’s common to feel personally responsible for the event or its outcome, even if you couldn’t have done anything to change it. Survivors’ guilt has been associated with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Negative emotions and intrusive thoughts about yourself and your life may begin to fester, so it’s essential to have and practice different ways to cope when you experience these feelings.
Ways to Cope with Survivor’s Guilt as a First Responder
One of the first steps to dealing with survivor’s guilt is acknowledging that you’re experiencing it. When left untreated, survivor’s guilt will affect how you function daily, especially in your job performance as a first responder. Being in denial about your mental and emotional state will only worsen the symptoms as time goes on.
When we ignore the reality of our internal health and wellness, it’s common to resort to unhealthy coping methods to self-medicate. One of the most common ways people tend to cope with feelings of distress is through drugs and alcohol. People use and abuse substances to numb their pain and temporarily forget, but it only exacerbates their symptoms. Coping with substances can lead to an alcohol or drug addiction, resulting in a co-occurring disorder. A co-occurring disorder, or dual diagnosis, is when a mental health disorder and a substance use disorder (SUD) coexist.
Give Yourself Room to Grieve
In many situations, first responders don’t allow themselves to acknowledge their pain, to process and heal from it entirely. Giving yourself the room to grieve is essential after experiencing a traumatic event. Remind yourself that it’s okay to heal it at your own pace.
Do More of What Makes You Happy
Everyone’s idea of happiness looks different. Whether it’s doing something for yourself or someone else, if it makes you feel good inside, then do it. Practicing self-care and self-love is an essential part of the healing process. Spending time outside and boosting your Vitamin D levels will also increase serotonin.
Validate Your Feelings
Invalidating your feelings and trying to convince yourself that you’re not suffering will not make them disappear. Ignoring the pain will only make it worse. Feeling remorse for a tragedy you were involved in doesn’t mean it was your fault. Experiencing sadness and grief are all common symptoms after experiencing a traumatic incident.
Remind yourself that it’s okay to move on and be grateful for the life that you get to live. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean forgetting what happened—it just means you’ve allowed yourself to heal from it. Storing feelings of unforgiveness will only stunt your recovery and keep you in a dangerous place.
Seek Support and Treatment
If you or a loved one are struggling with survivor’s guilt as a first responder, the following treatments and therapies can be beneficial for your healing process:
- Psychotherapy is an essential form of talk therapy to confidentially communicate emotional struggles and learn healthy methods for coping and growing. One-on-one therapy, whether short-term or long-term, is a supportive space that allows you to share and open up at your own pace.
- The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress offers online support and encouragement for first responders dealing with traumatic stress or guilt from experiences.
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a psychological treatment method used to recognize and alter our thinking patterns and behavioral responses. CBT has effectively treated depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and substance use disorders (SUDs).
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy is a psychotherapy treatment that utilizes controlled eye movements and other bilateral stimulation (BLS) to target traumatic memories and modify the negative emotions associated with the event. EMDR was initially created to help treat symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Mindfulness Meditation is the practice of persistently observing your thoughts, emotions, and sensations without judgment to remove the adverse feelings of anxiety linked to them. Focusing on the present moment, where we’re at, and what we see and feel allows the mind and body to slow down. Anxiety has our minds running a mile a minute, thinking about too many things simultaneously. Practicing mindfulness meditation helps us focus on breathing while slowing and reducing the stress reaction.
- National Library of Medicine, 2021. Survivor Guilt: A Cognitive Approach.
- Psychology Today, 2021. Co-Occurring Disorders.
- American Psychiatric Association, 2019. What is Psychotherapy?
- The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. https://www.aaets.org/frontline-groups
- American Psychological Association, 2017. What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?
- American Psychological Association, 2017, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy.
- Medical News Today, 2021. How Can Mindfulness Meditation Help Lessen Anxiety?