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Survivor Guilt

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Updated August 28, 2009

Definition:

Survivor guilt is officially recognized by the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 4th Ed.) as a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the accompanying emotional changes may lead to certain anxiety disorders, including phobias.

Survivor guilt is often experienced by those who have survived a major disaster. It is common to feel guilty about having survived when others died. These feelings may be worsened if someone died while rescuing you, or if you were unable to help someone else.

Some people experience survivor guilt even if they were nowhere near the disaster zone. For example, some individuals have stated that they were scheduled to fly on September 11, 2001, but their plans changed for one reason or another. Some of those people have discussed feeling survivor guilt because they “should” have been on a plane that day.

Symptoms of survivor guilt are similar to those of other anxiety disorders, as well as depression. Flashbacks, nightmares, loss of motivation, and obsessing about the event are common.

Some people are able to overcome survivor guilt on their own or with the help of supportive friends and family. If symptoms worsen or fail to improve, however, professional treatment is recommended. Without treatment, survivor guilt may lead to other anxiety disorders and clinical depression.

Examples:
I lived in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, but happened to be traveling out of town at the time of the storm. For a long time afterward, I suffered from survivor guilt, as I felt that I "should" have been in town.
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