Most of us have experienced feeling guilty and recognize it as an extremely uncomfortable feeling. We punish ourselves over guilt in a multitude of ways, such as taking on more responsibility as atonement or beating ourselves up over what we should have or could have done better. The artic blast in Texas left thousands with no heat, no water, and dwindling medical and food supplies. Those who did not suffer while watching struggling neighbors, family, and friends online may have some degree of survivor’s guilt.
Survivor’s guilt is a persistent emotional stress experienced by someone who has survived a tragic event. In the DSM-5, survivor’s guilt has been recategorized to a symptom of PTSD. However, survivor’s guilt can be independent of PTSD. The constant stream of punishing, negative thoughts can cause depression when you personalize shame and guilt that do not belong to you. While guilt is also a rational indicator that we did something wrong, you could never alleviate everyone’s suffering during this calamity. There are individuals who are responsible for the lack of electricity, but it is not you. In most cases, there was nothing you could do aside from extending kindness to those around you. The need to take care of your family forced most into a survival mode.
Survivor’s guilt, whether irrational or rational, is normal. Although it may or may not go away over time, these suggestions can help you cope.
1. Know you are not alone. Feeling guilty is a natural feeling and finding support through family, good friends, ministers, or mental health specialists can help you process it.
2. Accept your feelings and know that appreciation for your survival can co-exist. People stigmatize guilt and make you feel even more guilty for feeling it; this is unhealthy. Accept the feeling and practice gratitude for your survival. These two feelings, when practiced together, help heal the negative effects of survivor’s guilt.
3. Do something positive with your guilt and grieve those who died. Consider being part of a volunteer program that helps those who suffered most during the artic blast. Help, whether done online or in person, is always a gift to those who receive it. If there is a particular person you are grieving, make it a mission to mention them to others. Not letting your loved ones suffer or die in vain is important for healthy grieving.
4. Don’t drown in the "why’s." Endless why’s don’t help anyone. Asking why over and over keeps you stuck in the question and prevents your actions from becoming part of the solution to prevent it from happening again.
5. Talk to a mental health professional. If you continue to feel obsessed or overwhelmed with guilt, talk to a mental health professional. Counselors who deal with trauma or enrolling in an online support group are both good options for helping you move past your grief.
When so many suffer needlessly as we have seen with the artic blast, it’s an opportunity for everyone to make changes in the way we handled this situation. Not taking action towards change will ensure that we will go through this again.