Studies have shown that the better the personal support system for an individual with survivors guilt feelings is, the faster and more effectively that individual will recover from these feelings (Herman 1997). Though counseling and individualized therapy can also be hugely important and effective — as will be discussed momentarily — no psychological practitioner ever could (or ethically should) replace a network of family and friends to provide ongoing support and security to those suffering from survivors guilt (Khouzam & Kissmeyer 2006; Herman 1997). Reducing feelings of isolation and providing a sense of the lost security are both important steps in assisting recovery from survivors guilt.
One of the most effective therapeutic methods for dealing with feelings of survivors guilt is, strangely, to have the survivor relive the traumatic event(s) that have led to these feelings, and to have them express — and therefore fully acknowledge and come to accept — their feelings regarding the incident (Herman 1997, pp. 181-5). This allows the traumatic memory to be transformed, not by altering the details or attempting to erase the most traumatic portions, but rather by allowing these memories to become less traumatic through increased yet controlled exposure. This process is enormously important in aiding recovery, as guilt essentially stems from an inability to face ones feelings about oneself, and these therapeutic techniques focus on facing ones feelings regarding the trauma.
There are also techniques that have proven surprisingly ineffective. The use of pharmaceuticals to treat depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder has achieved no small measure of success in recent decades, yet pharmaceutical therapies seem uniquely unsuited to handling the issue of survivors guilt and can actually exacerbate the condition (Khouzam & Kissmeyer 2006).
Instead, individualized therapy and even an emphasis on rekindling and reinvigorating spiritual beliefs, regardless of the specifics of these beliefs, are all far more effective treatments for handling survivors guilt than the use of pharmaceuticals (Khouzam & Kissmeyer 2006). Spirituality, like the closeness of family and friends, provides a sense of connection and security that is distinctly lacking in these that suffer from survivors guilt, making it highly important in addressing the issue (Khouzam & Kissmeyer 2006; Herman 1997). These findings should of course not be interpreted to mean that anti-depressants and other pharmaceuticals should not be prescribed to handle post-traumatic stress-related issues, but it does suggest that such remedies alone do not create an effective process for dealing with the realities of survivors guilt.
Survivors guilt can be one of the most debilitating outcomes of a traumatic experience. With the proper care and an appropriate network of support, however, the damaging effects of this guilt an be overcome. Healing always takes time, but the proper processes can help speed recovery.
Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence from Domestic Violence to Political Terror. NY, NY: Basic Books.
Khouzam, H. & Kissmeyer, P. (2006). “Antidepressant treatment, posttraumatic stress disorder, survivor guilt, and spiritual awakening.” Journal of traumatic stress 10(4), pp..