Encountering traumatizing military situations is common for active military service members. While disturbing experiences as an army soldier are expected, it doesn’t make dealing with the effects of trauma any easier. Surviving life-threatening situations while losing comrades in combat can cause deep-rooted psychological wounds, a term known as survivor’s guilt.
What is Survivor’s Guilt?
Survivors guilt is a psychological term referring to the emotional response experienced by someone who survived a life-threatening event when others have not. For military personnel, survivor’s guilt originates from a soldier surviving combat situations where fellow soldiers do not. Whether it’s a close comrade or not, experiencing survivor’s guilt as a military soldier can cause long-term feelings of guilt and regret for surviving. This evokes persistent thoughts about their survival, including questioning why they survived when others did not, feeling responsible for their death, and undeserving of their survival. These intrusive thoughts and feelings can lead to distress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic disorder (PTSD) in military personnel.
The Psychological Impact of Survivor’s Guilt
Survivors’ guilt in military soldiers can have long-term psychological effects on their mental health and well-being. The emotional response often exacerbates the stress and trauma associated with military combat, leading to various mental health issues and co-occurring disorders in soldiers. According to SAMHSA’s 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 9.2 million adults in the United States have a co-occurring disorder. A co-occurring disorder, or dual diagnosis, is the coexistence of a mental health condition and a substance use disorder (SUD). While not everyone with a mental illness has a co-occurring disorder, research shows that someone with a mental illness is likelier to have an SUD than someone without.
The Effects of Survivor’s Guilt on Mental Health and Well-Being:
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): PTSD is a common mental health disorder in many military personnel following traumatic experiences. Survivor’s guilt is a symptom of PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and reoccurring thoughts of the traumatic event.
- Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Survivors’ guilt can contribute to the onset of depressive and anxiety disorders. Soldiers may experience persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, fatigue, and constant worry or fear.
- Suicidal Ideation: Someone may experience suicidal thoughts or self-harming behaviors due to overwhelming guilt and associated psychological conditions.
- Substance Use Disorders (SUDs): Substance abuse is a common coping mechanism for the guilt associated with mental health conditions. Turning to alcohol or drugs to cope can quickly lead to developing a substance use disorder (SUD), impeding mental health and leading to a co-occurring disorder.
- Sleep Disorders: The effects of survivor’s guilt can lead to persistent ruminations and nightmares, causing insomnia or other sleep disorders.
- Social Withdrawal: Someone with survivor’s guilt might withdraw from social activities and isolate themselves. Social isolation is often a result of feeling misunderstood or out of fear of causing more harm.
- Impaired Functioning: Survivors’ guilt can impact a soldier’s daily life, interfering with their ability to work, maintain relationships, complete daily tasks, or care for their physical health.
The psychological impact of survivor’s guilt on military personnel requires professional treatment and therapy to prevent further mental health issues.
Navigating Recovery: Treatment for Military Soldiers
Treatment for survivors’ guilt involves a combination of psychotherapy, medication, self-care strategies, and coping mechanisms. Processing traumatic feelings as a military soldier can be challenging and often requires professional guidance from a mental health therapist. For someone experiencing symptoms of survivor’s guilt, seeking professional treatment and therapy is crucial to achieve healing and long-term recovery. For military personnel dealing with comorbidities, drug and alcohol rehab centers offer effective treatment methods and services for dual diagnosis.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of therapy that helps individuals understand and alter destructive thought patterns leading to harmful behaviors and feelings. CBT therapists help soldiers understand that survivor’s guilt is a typical trauma response and work with them to develop healthier ways to address these feelings. Exposure therapy is a form of CBT that helps reduce the intensity of recurring traumatic memories. It involves recalling the traumatic event under controlled, safe conditions to help the individual face and gain control over their fear and distress. Group therapy and support groups for military personnel are beneficial for connecting with others with similar experiences and struggles. A supportive environment encourages soldiers to be more open about their trauma and learn coping strategies from peers.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is another type of psychotherapy used to treat survivors’ guilt to help process and interpret traumatic memories. EMDR treatments can help reduce the intensity of the memories associated with survivor’s guilt. In some cases, medication may be recommended as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for military personnel with survivor’s guilt. Antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or certain types of sleep aids may be used to manage symptoms associated with PTSD and depression.
Coping Strategies for Dealing with Survivor’s Guilt
Dealing with survivor’s guilt as a military service member can be mitigated by implementing healthy coping mechanisms into your daily routine. Coping strategies for survivor’s guilt include practicing self-care, engaging in mindfulness and meditation, and volunteering. Creating and maintaining a self-care routine plays a significant role in treating and overcoming survivor’s guilt. Incorporating self-care activities, such as regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, and relaxation exercises, can all help reduce anxiety symptoms and improve overall mental health. Practicing mindfulness meditation exercises can help you stay grounded in the present moment to alleviate feelings of guilt and anxiety. Helping others through volunteer work can assist survivors in finding solace through contributing to their communities and those in need.
Overcoming Survivor’s Guilt and Regaining Control
Overcoming survivors’ guilt and regaining control of their life following a traumatic event can be incredibly difficult for military personnel. Seeking professional mental health support, adopting a self-care routine, and having a solid support network are all effective ways to heal from survivor’s guilt. Practicing self-compassion is essential for allowing yourself the freedom to feel the emotions related to the traumatic event without judgment. Celebrating small steps encourages further growth by recognizing your resilience and courage, motivating you to continue your healing journey. Recovering from survivor’s guilt is a process that, with the proper support and tools, can help military personnel navigate through their guilt and regain control of their lives toward a happier, healthier future.
- National Library of Medicine, 2021. Survivor Guilt: A Cognitive Approach.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2021. 2021 National Survey of Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Releases.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Co-Occurring Disorders and Other Health Conditions.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019. Substance Use and Military Life Drug Facts: General Risk of Substance Use Disorders.
- WebMD, 2021. What Is Comorbidity?