Survivor Guilt and Re-Opened Wounds

One young man, a survivor of the recent mass shooting was called upon to carry a message. He was called the “lucky one.” In reality, no one who survives a trauma can be considered lucky in any sense of the word.

The recent mass shootings have opened the dark door of past experiences for many people struggling with survivor guilt.

Memories of losses and pain are embedded deep within our minds and are triggered by similar events. This reaction is the nature of human experience and the survival of the species depends upon our remembering past events as lessons and thereby protecting ourselves from repeating those mistakes.

In the domain of survivor guilt, the lessons are painful reminders and may stimulate the dormant symptoms that are the trademarks of survivor guilt: aches and pains, changes in sleep patterns, appetite, less interest in sex, increased use of alcohol or drugs, overeating and the powerful emotions of fear, shame, guilt, depression, hyper vigilance, emotional numbing, flashbacks and more.

Progress has been made in diagnosing and treating PTSD and the survivor guilt that has prompted numerous suicides, particularly in members of the armed forces.

The range of treatments is expanding with brain research and yet the disabling and sometimes deadly symptoms are always beneath the surface of what may appear to be a modest recovery and re-integration of the shattered self.

The Cycle of Pain

The dreadful memories and sensations are often triggered by similar events and the cycle of pain begins anew.

Although medication and alternative strategies are often utilized, they are out of context with our Western perspectives, mores and value system. As such, they may not be fully incorporated by the individual into his or her socially-prescribed, Western consciousness.

When a person practices, for example, meditation or yoga to reduce anxiety, to minimize flashbacks or numbing, the exercises may not become as embedded because of conflicts with our social values and ideals.

For example, in the Western world, we celebrate and promote independence, self-reliance, competition and a striving for the ideal and for perfection. We are self-centered. Our value system stimulates a relentless search for improvement, for power, for achievement and we are mostly anxious and dissatisfied with ourselves.

When we “fail,” we fall down into a deep well of disappointment with ourselves and when we make mistakes, our feelings of guilt can be lasting and devastating.

Being unable to act, being helpless is perceived as massive mistake by many in our culture. It is a failure of will, of individual strength and it is regarded as a lack of courage and judgment.

When an individual in our society is unable to act in a deadly, dangerous situation, there are also strong feelings of shame and the person experiences humiliation and the painful sense that the core of his/her “self” is bad.

This perception is a burden carried on the person’s  shoulders who is expected and assumed to be independent, self-reliant and constantly improving themselves.

The Western image of the “perfect” person is impossible to replicate when one is unable to act, to change the situation or to save lives in a catastrophe.

In Western culture, survival guilt embeds itself deeply in the mind and body and our very culture provides little protection.

Survivor Guilt and Re-Opened Wounds

Margaret Altman, LCSW, MSW

Margaret Altman is a crisis intervention specialist and has intervened in many explosive situations within jails, emergency rooms, suicide prevention centers and psychiatric units. She is a featured writer on the Mad in America website and has more more than 35 years of experience as an LCSW in psychiatry, corrections and private practice. Her book, "Developing Your Child’s Emotional Intelligence" is on Amazon. Margaret currently focuses on issues of minority and marginalized populations in order to give them a voice in the mental health domain.


APA Reference
Altman, M. (2015). Survivor Guilt and Re-Opened Wounds. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 18, 2020, from


Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 27 Oct 2015
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 27 Oct 2015
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