Understanding the Relationship Between Survivor’s Guilt and PTSD

Survivor’s Guilt and PTSD

Just as it sounds, the phenomenon of survivor’s guilt can affect anyone who has experienced or witnessed a life-threatening and traumatic situation that has taken the lives of others, but not their own. While our brains are primed for survival, those who get through such events alive may find themselves asking, “Why not me? Why wasn’t I taken too?” The gift of surviving can become emotionally torturous for some.


“Why not me? Why wasn’t I taken too?” The gift of surviving a traumatic event can become emotionally torturous for some. It’s called survivor’s guilt. Click To Tweet

There are many heart-wrenching examples of how this can happen, including:

  • Veterans of war who witnessed the deaths of their fellow soldiers
  • First responders—like firefighters—having teammates perish in a fire they were fighting together
  • Losing family and friends during hurricanes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters
  • Acts of terrorism, such as the attacks of 9/11
  • Parents whose children died, or family members who lose siblings to hereditary illnesses or suicide
  • Losing a loved one, friend, or colleague in a pandemic

The Link to PTSD

These are the same types of events that can lead to posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, survivor’s guilt is often considered a serious symptom of PTSD. While not everyone who endures a traumatic event will develop PTSD, some research estimates that as many as 90% of people who lived through events where others died experience feelings of guilt. They may question their own survival and feel a sense of responsibility for what happened:

  • Why did my buddy get killed, but not me?
  • Why did I run away from it?
  • Why didn’t I do more to save others?
  • What could I have done to prevent this tragedy?

Other Symptoms to Look For

From the outside, it may be easy to think that a person is fortunate to have survived such a tragic event—and they are. However, on the inside, those with survivor’s guilt often have terrible remorse about what happened and may have a very difficult time coping with and processing the loss they survived. They are also likely to experience other symptoms of PTSD, such as:

  • Increased irritability and anger
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks or nightmares
  • Hypervigilance and being easily startled
  • Obsessive thoughts about the event
  • Difficulty with concentration and focus
  • Problems with sleep
  • Feeling detached from reality or estranged from others
  • Social isolation
  • Avoiding anything (including people) that is a reminder of the traumatic event
  • Physical complaints like headaches and gastrointestinal distress
  • Self-destructive behaviors, including substance abuse
  • Thoughts of suicide

Survivor’s guilt is very distressing, and some people may be more vulnerable to developing it because of their personal and developmental history. For example, those who suffered abuse during childhood may be especially triggered because the new traumatic event brings old ones to the surface again. Also, people who have mental health problems like anxiety and depression (or a family history of psychiatric disorders), or have substance use disorder may be at greater risk as well.

There is Hope for Healing!

Humans are remarkably resilient, and many people will recover from PTSD and survivor’s guilt within a year or so—even without treatment. However, research indicates nearly 30% of those suffering from PTSD will not recover quickly. They may become overwhelmed by their symptoms and have difficulty functioning because of what happened.

If you or someone you know is dealing with the anguish of survivor’s guilt and PTSD, it’s important to know that it is possible to heal so life can feel enjoyable again. It’s also critical to understand it was not your fault that others perished in a catastrophic event. Getting professional help can make all the difference in the world for you.

Symptoms of PTSD and other mental health issues can’t wait. During these uncertain times, your mental well-being is more important than ever and waiting until life gets back to “normal” is likely to make your symptoms worsen over time.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. 2 times I survived traumatic events but those were nothing compared to being arrested and held overnight in jail for bogus charges. If you have influence in the community and police that are poorly trained that can happen to a 73 y.o. woman who has always been law abiding

    Comment by Leslie Andriola — March 5, 2021 @ 6:02 AM

  2. can surviving a serious health crisis fall under this category? I’ve
    been hospitalized twice for devasting events

    Comment by peggy juneau — March 5, 2021 @ 8:02 AM

  3. I don’t know how I can ever recover. I take full responsibility for myself and I have refused to give up, but I have come to realize I am in this alone. neither you or anyone else is willing to help me. I once had a very full life and I still have purpose but I am in agony every single day. I am legally disabled now. I have been diagnosed with PTSD as severe as any War veteran who has seen their troops blown up right in front of them. I am also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I have also received multiple head injuries. right now I am receiving no treatment whatsoever because no one is willing to help me!!! I cannot afford your services because I am now 200% below the federal poverty level. I have free government health insurance now and I’m getting exactly what I pay for nothing absolutely nothing NOTHING! I have been begging and begging and begging to have a psychiatrist again and to have my medicine back that I have been taking since 1991 that kept me stable and functioning and from being suicidal. my medicine was taken away because I reported abuse in the mental health system. I AM SAFE! I have a disability dog who helps me and I would never leave him! I worked and paid taxes all my life and have been approved and I’m entitled to all kinds of services and I am receiving absolutely nothing nothing nothing! I am afraid that I will die. but every time I ask for help, I am turned in like some kind of criminal to the police. (who are equipped to do nothing) or I am turned into the local emergency mental health services in my area who are the very people that abused me! I reported this abuse in legal and criminal complaints but because I have mental health issues they have not even been investigated. I do not want to die but I am completely traumatized and being forced to submit to abuse IF I WANT to get help WHICH I WILL NEVER DO! I am so motivated if I could get the right help, I know I can get on my feet and go back to my career again if only someone would invest in me and help me! I do my best to eat only the foods you say but I don’t even have food everyday, so I certainly cannot afford your services, or even your supplements (which i think could really help me) even with a payment plan. I have so much faith in my God I keep crying and praying to him everyday that someone will invest in me and just help me get back on my feet AND NOT KEEP PASSING ME AROUND LIKE A FOOTBALL! I’ve been passed around for 4 years now and I need somebody to please please step up and help me! Can Dr. Amen be the one to show me just some humanity? NO ONE ELSE THINKS I AM WORTH IT! i am.

    Comment by Robin Santarsiera — March 5, 2021 @ 12:21 PM

  4. Very true. Thanks for sharing the signs as well as hope for healing. Is there treatment plan you recommend that is more than therapy? Also, noting that the military do not always have the means for therapy how can we create change in that atmosphere?

    Comment by Brenda Saxe — March 5, 2021 @ 1:50 PM

  5. Robin Santarsiera
    I read your comment and can only say how sorry I am to hear of your plight. Don’t give up hope.
    If you type in specific helps you need into the search box of JW.org you will find a lot of very beautiful and comforting information. I don’t know if you will get this, but I hope you do, and that you find your pearl of great value.

    Kind regards

    Comment by michael — March 6, 2021 @ 5:27 AM

  6. Your information is always good, but your services are so expensive. I hope you see in the comments, as I do, that this causes a lot of stress and abandonment flashbacks to those of us that you are pointing out all the effects of trauma with no solution but your own very expensive treatments and scans. I see it EVERY SINGLE time I read the comments. I have felt it myself. You’re really priced for the elite few, but talking to the masses. What are you doing to really help people? Say the veterans or other survivors? What other resources can you point people too? Thank you.

    Comment by Elizabeth Newman — March 6, 2021 @ 8:41 AM

  7. Am SO disappointed that much of Dr. Daniel Amen’s ideas have NOT been proven. I bought his books, watched his on-line programs & PBS….just to learn he’s selling a lot of “snake oil”. 😕

    Comment by Kathryn Rogers — March 6, 2021 @ 11:20 AM

  8. I understand yourpain and desperation for help. I suffer from mental and emotional problems too and I seeked out help for them. I’m sure if you keep trying you can do the same and eventually get the help you need. Stay strong and be confident and I’m sure someday help will come your way.

    Comment by Randi Jeaan Sterba — March 6, 2021 @ 3:16 PM

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

Contact Us

Pre-order Daniel Amen, MD’s new book “Raising Mentally Strong Kids” and get 5 bonus gifts! Click here for details.