Beware the Survivor Guilt Syndrome

Written By Alex

December 8, 2015

While at a recent community recovery strategy meeting, I went to pay for the coffees that I have bought with this person. This particular person had within the last 5 days lost their house in a fire and had with one of their children survived death by about 5 minutes. I wanted to check up on this person. This person insisted on paying for the coffees which I refused. As it turned out the owner of the coffee shop paid as a show of support and as  act of kindness for this person. When I informed the person of this act, the tears flowed. The comment made “I don’t like charity and there are other people worse off that myself!” How? House gone, business severely damaged and life just saved! Other people worse off? Why is it so hard to say “yes” to such help and kindness? Are we suffering from survivor guilt? Here is an article that talks about this concept and some strategies to deal with it.


You are sitting there in shock! Your neighbours’ crops, property, assets, dreams and efforts have gone up in flames. You are OK – the winds changed just in time so your property and crops escaped the wrath of the natural disaster. So why are you feeling so guilty and ashamed?

You may be suffering from a condition called “Survivor Guilt.” Survivor guilt is a mental health condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It is found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics and among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide.

It can be as crippling to wellbeing as any other form of mental health. This syndrome may explain why some people have so much trouble asking for, and accepting help. It may explain the “No, I am OK mate – give the help to someone else who is worse off than me” response.


Do you have any of these thoughts or questions about severe events you may have experienced?

  • What could I or others have done to prevent this?
  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • How could God let this happen?
  • Did they suffer during the disaster?
  • Why couldn’t we all survive?
  • Why am I lucky to be here when others are not?


The symptoms of survivor guilt are often similar to those of anxiety and depression. They may be experienced as mild or severe and can include the following:

  • Nightmares
  • Sleeplessness
  • Loss of motivation
  • Fearful of meeting people who did suffer more losses than you and unsure of what to say and do
  • Withdrawal from public events or from the public
  • Flashbacks
  • Reduction in or disinterest in self care
  • Increase in irritability or agitation
  • Thoughts about the meaning of life or confusion about living
  • Obsessing about the event / Preoccupation with the event
  • Fear that there is no safety in the world
  • Regrets about the quality of the relationship with the deceased
  • Difficulty getting along with others or disrupted relationships
  • Feeling immobilized
  • Feeling numb or disconnected
  • Unwillingness to discuss the event
  • Feeling helpless
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Increase in use of alcohol or drugs as a way of managing difficult emotions
  • Physical symptoms including headache, stomach ache, racing heart, dizziness, and
  • Feelings of wanting to hurt oneself or take one’s own life


Strategies to cope with survivor guilt

Apply the following strategies;

  • Remind yourself that the disaster was not your fault and that you could not control the outcome
  • Remind yourself that those people who did suffer, are not angry at you and most probably thankful that you did not experience what they did
  • Wherever possible, honour those who experienced the worst of the conditions and help out where you can – rather than withdraw, reach out and offer practical help
  • If there has been loss of life, participate in the grieving and healing process of attending memorial services and where possible honour the memory through a local tribute, tree planting ceremony etc. (but talk to the family first before you do this)
  • Be empathetic – not sympathetic (you do not know what they feel or what they are thinking!)
  • Offer help and advice – do not impose solutions
  • Talk to people close to you about your own feelings of guilt – you are most probably not alone in having these feelings
  • Accept help – while you may not have experienced the same type of losses, there are been a change in your life. Now is the time to accept help that is offered
  • Focus on what you can control and influence – your family, business and community
  • Be grateful for what you have
  • Keep to a daily routine even though you are going through a difficult time
  • Eat well, sleep well, drink well; and if need be
  • See your doctor, psychologist or a qualified practitioner.


Dennis J. Hoiberg is the founder of the niche consulting group Lessons Learnt Consulting. His recently published book “The White Knuckled Ride” has become a popular guide for bouncing forward and thriving through the challenges and opportunities of life. The company assists individuals, families, organisations and communities thrive through change. Lessons Learnt Consulting conducts free monthly webinars that are available to be downloaded from

The company provides coaching services, training programs, community presentations and personal development retreats throughout Australia and overseas.

Follow him on twitter @dennishoiberg and

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