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  • Sara

How to Heal from Trauma-induced Guilt

Updated: Sep 12, 2022

Living with trauma is an incredibly difficult experience and it affects everyone who suffers from it differently. This is because trauma is a highly individualized concept. It can stem from a wide variety of unfortunate circumstances and events, and the level of trauma experienced depends largely on a person’s own capacity to process what has happened. However, many of the symptoms that occur in the aftermath are similar despite how different the experience can be.


For example, many people who have suffered trauma will feel some sort of guilt related to that event in the post-traumatic state. Of course, the source of the guilt relates to the specific experience and, thus, isn’t the same across the board. But, regardless of the source, guilt can make it difficult for a trauma survivor to accept what has happened and to validate their own feelings about it. Guilt is an incredibly difficult emotion to shake and tends to linger long after the circumstances that have cause it.


Often, a person who has undergone significant trauma will be plagued with survivor's guilt. This is a specific type of guilt tied to the fact that the individual was able to continue on after the event while others were not. Survivor’s guilt tends to surface after tragedies that affect many of people simultaneously. It’s a concept that’s prevalent after mass shootings, terrorist attacks, society-wide illnesses, and the like. Those who survive these experiences while watching others parish might feel a deep sense of guilt that they were able to live on while others were not. Of course, it's not your fault that you lived, but even though you may logically “know” this to be true, feeling it is another thing entirely.


Other sources of guilt tend to include feelings that one could have prevented the trauma or are overreacting to what’s happened. Those who feel they could have prevented the events believe, at some level, that they are to blame, and this blame can become incredibly deep-seated if it’s not addressed in a timely fashion. Situations involving abuse and neglect tend to cause trauma survivors to have feelings that these things were preventable even though they were not. Car accidents, accidents around the home or sudden losses all tend to stir up these feelings as well.


Guilt tied to feelings that an individual is overreacting often show up when two or more people experience the same traumatic event, and one appears to be just fine while the other is left ruminating and unable to move forward. This occurs, of course, because trauma affects people in different ways – again, it is a highly individualized experience. Nevertheless, it can be difficult to witness a fellow trauma survivor moving on seemingly undeterred by what’s happened while you’re still being impacted by it.


It's important to be able to identify the source of guilt in the aftermath of trauma in order to work through the thoughts and feelings attached to it. To manage feelings of guilt, seeking help is your best option. Receiving help from a therapist can allow you better understand where your feelings are coming from and what to do next. This is not something that is easily done alone.


Moreover, many people who have gone through traumatic situations have been manipulated to the point that they’re experiencing phenomena such as Stockholm Syndrome or cognitive dissonance. This is because abusers manipulate their victims into thinking they deserve what they are going through or that they are not being abused. Long-term manipulation has incredibly damaging effects on the brain. A therapist can help to identify what these effects are and how to undo them so a person can move forward effectively.


Therapy can also help individuals who feel may have been through a traumatic accident that they could have prevented. The biggest part of healing from trauma and guilt is accepting what has happened and that is wasn’t your fault, but it often takes moving through the stages of grief (beyond the stage of ‘bargaining’) to get there. Without outside help, it can be all too easy to get stuck somewhere along the way. When you accept what has happened, you are able to understand that you cannot change the past and that you only have control of your actions, not those of others.


Survivor’s guilt is especially difficult because many people feel as if they don’t deserve to live. This can induce suicidal ideation and it can literally be a matter of life or death in deciding whether or not to get help. The truth is that no one deserves to go through something traumatic and surviving it is nothing to feel guilty over. Talking to a therapist and those you trust about your feelings, practicing self-care, and addressing negative thought patterns is the best way to start healing.

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