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Survivor's Guilt

Survivor Guilt" can be explained as the feeling of responsibility that individuals who have survived a life-threatening situation experience for the death of others who remained in the same situation. Even if the person knows that there was nothing they could have done to save the other person in the traumatic event, they continue to feel guilty for the other person's death.

Survivor guilt is associated with the survivor's attempt to understand why they survived and others did not, and to question the meaning of their survival. It is believed that the survivor's continued existence while others die can create the thought that "it was wrong for me to survive." Survivor guilt can arise when a person believes that their survival was not fair. The person who experiences survivor guilt may develop beliefs such as "the other person deserved to live more than me," "my survival cost the other person's life," or "the world is unfair."

Research shows that 46% of Vietnam War survivors and 55% of lung cancer survivors experienced survivor guilt. In the UK, the rate of survivor guilt in those who sought treatment at a trauma center after experiencing a life-threatening traumatic event was found to be 90%. The findings suggest that survivor guilt can continue to affect individuals for a period ranging from 30 months to 10 years.

It is believed that survivor guilt is an evolutionarily present emotion that serves to unify and bind the community in which it is experienced. This feeling arouses the desire to help each other among those who share the trauma. The literature has shown that survivor guilt leads to increased mutual aid, traumatic growth, and acts of sacrifice after earthquakes.

Source: Murray, H., Pethania, Y., Medin, E. (2021). Survivor guilt: a cognitive approach. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist (14) p.1-14.

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