You find yourself on a peaceful train journey, traveling from the bustling city of Minneapolis to the charming town of Grand Rapids. In a sociable mood, you strike up a conversation with the woman seated across from you. The train ride is a bit shaky, but it’s nothing you haven’t experienced before.
Out of the blue, an unexpected event disrupts the tranquil atmosphere. The lights in the train car flicker, and the emergency alarm begins to blare. Startled, you grab your attention with a hint of worry. It’s clear that something is not right, and a sense of unease starts to fill the air. The train car comes to a jolting halt, and the sudden braking makes everyone lurch forward.
With a touch of concern, you realize that this is far from ordinary; it’s a situation that no one anticipated. An eerie silence replaces the usual sounds of the train’s movements, and an unsettling feeling washes over you. The doors of the train car remain sealed, and you can’t help but wonder what has caused this abrupt stop.
As you look around, you notice the fear and confusion on the faces of your fellow passengers. You lock eyes with the woman seated across the aisle from you. Her expression mirrors the anxiety you’re feeling, and you share a silent exchange of apprehension.
As time seems to drag on, your thoughts race with uncertainty. Then, slowly, you start to hear muffled voices and the distant sounds of emergency personnel. It becomes apparent that something has gone terribly wrong, and the situation remains precarious. You’re left with an unsettling feeling of vulnerability, not knowing what lies ahead.
You wake up in a hospital room, surrounded by the soft hum of medical equipment. You’re relieved to be alive, but you’re unsure how you managed to survive the ordeal. Hours later, you learn the tragic news that the woman you’d spoken to on the train didn’t make it. It’s a somber moment that leaves you with a heavy heart.
In the aftermath of this unexpected turn of events, a myriad of emotions wash over you.
What are you feeling?
Following a harrowing brush with death, most individuals might experience a profound sense of relief – the thought of “I’m alive!” resounding in their minds. This newfound lease on life can be accompanied by a profound feeling of gratitude and an overwhelming appreciation for the precious gift of survival. In the face of such close calls, they may consider themselves truly blessed.
However, a different, much darker emotional spectrum can envelop others. Instead of feeling blessed, they bear the heavy burden of feeling cursed, and this curse takes the form of guilt, more specifically, a phenomenon known as “survivor guilt.”
Survivor guilt is a complex psychological reaction often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that frequently arises in those who have endured intensely distressing situations or events resulting in severe injury, loss, or even death. Within the realm of PTSD, anxiety tends to be the dominant emotion, overshadowing many other emotions.
But survivor guilt, as the term suggests, predominantly centers on a profound sense of guilt, a gnawing feeling that one does not deserve the life they still possess when others have lost theirs. It’s as if they carry the weight of the world’s misfortune on their shoulders, even though they have no control over the circumstances. This overwhelming guilt can lead to a cascade of emotions, often culminating in deep depression.
The burden of survivor guilt can be so overwhelming that it drives some individuals to the brink of despair, pushing them to contemplate the unthinkable, including thoughts of suicide. The tormenting question of “Why me?” lingers in their minds, and they grapple with a sense of unworthiness, constantly haunted by the memories of those who didn’t make it.
In addition to feelings of guilt and depression, individuals with survivor guilt often experience a sense of isolation. They may find it difficult to relate to others who haven’t experienced a similar trauma. As they witness the world moving forward, they may feel stuck in a never-ending loop of guilt and grief, unable to escape the relentless grip of their emotions.
Navigating the treacherous terrain of survivor guilt is a formidable challenge. It demands not only resilience but also a deep understanding of the complex interplay of emotions and the need for professional help to process and manage these overwhelming feelings.
The ABCs of emotions
Understanding the complex terrain of survivor guilt necessitates delving into the origins of our emotions. To truly comprehend why we feel the way we do, it’s essential to explore the “ABC” model. This model provides a framework for deciphering the intricate interplay of our emotions.
At point A in the ABC model, we encounter adversity, often exemplified by surviving a traumatic event. At point C, we find the consequence, which is the emotional reaction we experience, such as guilt. Many people tend to attribute their emotions (C) directly to the traumatic event (A), often seeing it as a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship: “This event occurred, so I feel this way.”
However, this perspective is not entirely accurate, and in this inaccuracy lies a silver lining. Why is this a fortunate realization? Because if our emotions were solely a byproduct of external events, we would be left feeling powerless, perpetually at the mercy of life’s unpredictable twists and turns. We would be victims of our circumstances, incapable of influencing or altering our emotional responses to life’s challenges.
Thankfully, we are not destined to be perpetual victims. Within the ABC model, a crucial component exists, represented by B—our beliefs and self-talk. It’s not A that directly gives rise to C; instead, it’s B. What we believe and the narratives we construct about event A determine the emotions we experience.
In simpler terms, it’s not the occurrence of event A, such as surviving a traumatic incident, that automatically triggers the emotion of survivor guilt (C). Rather, it is the content of our thoughts, our beliefs, and the internal dialogue we engage in (B) about having survived that wields the power to shape whether we experience survivor guilt or not.
To illustrate these principles, let’s examine a real-life case. While the names have been altered, the events themselves are undeniably authentic. This case study serves to highlight some of the beliefs and thought patterns that underpin or contribute to survivor guilt, but it also demonstrates how these beliefs can be challenged and ultimately transformed.
By exploring the multifaceted nature of survivor guilt through the lens of the ABC model and real-life experiences, we gain valuable insights into the intricacies of human emotions and our capacity to effect positive change in our emotional responses.
Dozing behind the wheel – Breaking free from self-imposed burdens
College student Alex and her friends were returning from an adventurous weekend in the mountains. Alex, usually a front-seat enthusiast, found herself in the back seat this time. Her friend, Sarah, had called “shotgun” earlier, securing the coveted front-seat spot beside the driver, Ella. Initially, Alex felt a pang of disappointment but soon settled into the back seat, cocooned with her cozy blanket and immersed in her music.
It was a late and pitch-dark night, and the long day had taken its toll on everyone. Alex drifted into sleep, an experience shared by the driver, Ella. Tragically, it was at that moment that their car veered off the road, colliding with a stand of trees. The accident claimed the lives of both Ella and Sarah, leaving Alex as the sole survivor, physically unharmed but profoundly scarred emotionally.
“I should have called ‘shotgun’ first,” Alex muttered to herself, her voice tinged with a heavy burden of guilt. She was well aware that her words held a certain truth: if she had been in the front seat, it could have been her life that was taken instead of Sarah’s. But the guilt she felt extended far beyond this acknowledgment.
In the midst of her anguish, Alex began to convince herself of falsehoods. She believed that she should have been in the front seat, that it was her duty to keep the driver awake, and worst of all, that she should have foreseen the danger of Ella falling asleep at the wheel. These self-imposed “should” statements plunged her into what psychologists often term the “tyranny of the should.” Her inner monologue was irrational, a reflection of distorted thinking and illogical conclusions. However, Alex clung to these beliefs, never pausing to question whether she was unjustly condemning herself. She put herself on trial within the confines of her own mind and declared herself guilty without presenting a fair defense.
But hope and clarity emerged. Alex’s beliefs were subjected to scrutiny, and the evidence was closely examined. She came to realize that she had no way of predicting the tragedy that unfolded. She bore no responsibility for the accident, nor did she dictate Sarah’s decision to sit in the front seat or Ella’s exhaustion behind the wheel.
With the guidance of compassionate support, Alex began to understand that she couldn’t control what had occurred. What she could influence, however, was her internal dialogue. Condemning herself as guilty didn’t serve her or her friends’ memory. The truth was that she had committed no wrongdoing, even though it felt as if she had.
Alex embarked on a journey to identify and challenge her thought patterns. As she altered her self-talk, her emotions began to shift. The weight of guilt diminished significantly, allowing her to mourn the loss appropriately. The accident was undeniably tragic, but it wasn’t her fault. Alex was free to experience deep sorrow for her friend’s untimely demise without carrying the unnecessary burden of guilt.
Survivor guilt and self-preservation
After a tragic natural disaster struck a close-knit neighborhood, a survivor named Emily was interviewed about her experience. Emily’s next-door neighbor, James, lost his life in the disaster, while she miraculously survived. In the midst of recounting the harrowing events, Emily hesitated and then admitted something that many might find surprising.
She confessed that, upon learning about the tragedy, a fleeting thought crossed her mind: “I’m relieved it wasn’t me.” This confession initially raised eyebrows, but as Emily continued to explain, her sentiment became more understandable.
Emily clarified that her initial reaction was not a desire for James’s misfortune. She had cherished their neighborly bond and grieved deeply for his loss. However, that initial thought was a candid acknowledgment of her profound relief that she had been spared. It was a testament to the instinctive human drive for self-preservation.
The reaction she shared was a reflection of her innate value for her own life, emphasizing that it’s a natural, unfiltered emotion that often occurs in the wake of a tragedy. Many others who had been through similar ordeals quietly nodded in agreement. They had felt the same, and it was a shared emotion that transcended judgment.
For Emily, coming to terms with this instinctive response was an essential part of her healing process. She recognized that this initial thought didn’t diminish her grief for James or her sense of empathy for those who lost loved ones. It was merely a momentary acknowledgment of her own survival, driven by the powerful instinct of self-preservation.
By sharing her experience and addressing this natural response, Emily encouraged a more open and compassionate conversation about survivor guilt, ultimately helping others in the community cope with their own complex emotions and find solace in the aftermath of the disaster.
Addressing Survivor Guilt Through Rational Thinking
Survivor guilt often takes root in our minds, driven by a relentless barrage of self-questioning. It can be effectively challenged by asking a fundamental question: “Have I committed any wrongdoing?”
The key is not whether you “feel” like you’ve done something wrong; it’s a matter of determining whether you have actually transgressed. It’s crucial to differentiate between feelings and thoughts on one side and actions and behaviors on the other. Guilt arises when we’ve violated a standard or broken a rule of behavior. The pivotal question is whether this standard you believe you’ve transgressed is based on a realistic benchmark or if it’s an artifact of the “tyranny of the should.” This tyranny represents standards that are unrealistic, demanding perfection, and convincing you that you must adhere to them.
Survivor guilt finds its foundation in this flawed thinking. The path to liberation begins with the challenge of these misguided beliefs. Replace them with accurate, rational messages, and you’ll witness survivor guilt gradually receding, if not disappearing entirely. It’s essential to understand that sound thinking yields positive results, paving the way for emotional healing and self-compassion.
This article has been written by James H. Redford MD for Prepper’s Will.
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