Resilience and Survivor's Guilt

An interview with Stacey McElroy-Heltzel on what it is and how to address it.

Posted Jan 16, 2019

This is the third in a series of interviews with expert psychologists on how resilience—one of the major themes of my book, A Walking Disaster: What Surviving Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience—connects to their area of study.

Stacey McElroy-Heltzel
Source: Stacey McElroy-Heltzel

Today’s interview is on the subject of survivor’s guilt and features Dr. Stacey McElroy-Heltzel, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University. She specializes in the areas of positive psychology and intercultural romantic relationships. Her clinical experiences include working with college students to navigate life transitions and cope with mental health concerns such as trauma, anxiety, and depression. Survivor's guilt is something we often see among disaster survivors, and it was something I personally dealt with after watching cancer take the lives of friends and others in my community.

JA: How do you personally define survivor’s guilt?

SM: Survivor’s guilt is a term that describes feelings of guilt or of having done something wrong for surviving a traumatic event. Individuals experiencing survivor’s guilt may ask themselves things like, “Why did I survive when others didn’t?” and “Why wasn’t I impacted as badly as others?” Other symptoms may include feelings of numbness, disconnection, shame, or sadness, behaviors such as withdrawing from others, and physical symptoms such as trouble sleeping and headaches. 

JA: What sort of things cause survivor’s guilt?

SM: Survivor’s guilt can occur in response to a variety of traumas, such as natural disasters, mass shootings, accidents, and even escaping generational poverty among first-generation college students. An individual may feel survivor’s guilt in response to seeing others in worse shape than they are. Oftentimes, the way individuals and communities are impacted by disasters or traumas is arbitrary. For example, one neighbor’s house may be wiped out by a tornado, while another’s stands perfectly intact. These events and experiences can be hard to make sense of, leading some individuals to feel like they did not deserve to be spared.

JA: What are some things people can do to try and overcome survivor’s guilt?

SM: First, know that your reactions and feelings are normal. It’s also okay to feel grateful for surviving. This does not mean that you do not care about others.

Engage in good self-care such as getting regular exercise, eating healthy meals, and getting adequate sleep.

Resist the urge to withdraw from others. Talk to someone you trust about your feelings, and ask for help if you need it.

If appropriate, you may also consider volunteering formally or informally to help the community of others who were impacted. Help in a way that is meaningful and feasible for you.

Consider talking to a mental health professional or religious/spiritual leader in your community about your feelings, especially if your symptoms last longer than two weeks or are impacting your ability to carry out your normal daily activities.

JA: Any advice on how we might support a friend or loved one struggling with survivor’s guilt?

SM: One of the most important things you can do for someone struggling with survivor’s guilt is to simply be there and listen to their thoughts and feelings. Know that they may struggle with asking for help and support, and that social withdrawal is a typical part of survivor’s guilt. Reach out to them, and offer a listening ear or other forms of support.

JA: Can you share about what you’re working on these days related to survivor’s guilt?

SM: My colleagues and I have recently developed a new measure of survivor’s guilt that better taps into how survivor’s guilt impacts relationships with friends, family, and one’s community. We hope this will help researchers and clinicians better understand how survivor’s guilt is related to mental health and well-being.