Mass shootings, resulting in the death or injury of multiple victims due to firearms, are reported in the news almost every day. The Gun Violence Archive (GVA) verified a total of 317 mass shooting incidents this year alone. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times reported a mass shooting at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, which resulted in the deaths of 14 people and left 22 more injured after a married couple opened fire at a holiday party.
Mass shootings and terrorist attacks — such as the one that occurred in Paris in November — affect the lives of many people. Following a tragic event such as a mass shooting, survivors, witnesses, family members and friends can experience a variety of emotions such as anger, shock, sorrow and sadness, numbness, grief and fear. In the aftermath of a tragic mass shooting, the victims may begin to experience intense guilt as they begin to question why they survived when so many other people did not.
What is survival guilt?
Josh Klapow, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health, reported that survivor guilt can be a byproduct of those who survive mass shootings. Many people who survive or directly witness a life-threatening event will develop survival guilt to some extent. Survival guilt is thought to function as a coping mechanism for helping survivors make sense of what happened and deal with the powerlessness, helplessness and intense emotions they felt during the incident.
Survivor guilt is considered to be a normal part of the grieving process, and the way that a person deals with it largely depends on his or her coping skills and previous experiences with death and trauma. According to Kathleen Nader, D.S.W., one of the main reasons people develop survival guilt is that they are uninjured or survive when others were not as fortunate. Although the survivors are more likely to experience survivor guilt, all individuals involved with a tragic event — such as the witnesses, emergency responders, family members and friends — can develop survivor guilt if they feel guilty for being unable to rescue someone or were unable to stop the event from happening.
Symptoms of survivor guilt
The distressing responses in the aftermath of trauma include substance abuse, sleeping problems, post-traumatic stress and anxiety, mood disturbances, and other physical and psychological symptoms. As such, survivors of mass shootings, and of other life-threatening situations, may commonly experience difficulty sleeping, concentrating, eating or remembering simple tasks like self-care.
The symptoms of survival guilt can range from mild discomfort to severe emotional pain and may be closely related to those of anxiety disorders and depression, which may include the following:
People with survival guilt are more likely to use alcohol and drugs to cope with their difficult emotions and have physical symptoms including headaches, stomachaches, heart palpitations and dizziness. Due to the association with trauma, many symptoms of survival guilt closely resemble those of acute stress disorder (ASD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depressive disorder (MDD) and other anxiety disorders, and survivors may be more vulnerable to developing these disorders following a traumatic event.
Coping with survivor guilt
It is important to remember that grief is a normal process and many people will experience it at some point in their lives. Dealing with and fully processing such intense guilt is not a quick process and can take several weeks, months or even years. Karen Flood, Ph.D., National Center for Crisis Management, stressed the importance of being honest, experiencing grief and acceptance, and adjusting to the loss. Denial, she said, will only delay the process.
There are many ways a person can cope with survivor guilt. Some of the tools that people can use to deal with their distress include:
Survivors may benefit from attending support groups such as the Self-Help Group Sourcebook OnLine, practicing self-care, fully going through the grief process, gaining closure and honoring the deceased. Those who have difficulty coping with intense emotional reactions in response to a traumatic event, or have symptoms that are interfering with daily life, may benefit from seeking professional help through this process.
Sovereign Health of Florida provides individualized, evidence-based treatments for substance abuse, mental health and co-occurring disorders. If you or a loved one is affected by survivor guilt or you would like more information on the Sovereign Health Group’s treatment programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Amanda Habermann, M.S. clinical psychology, Sovereign Health Group writer
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