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Survivor Guilt and Re-Opened Wounds

Broadening Knowledge

Looking at Eastern cultural traditions is one way of broadening our knowledge about survivor guilt and PTSD.

It also offers applicable methods of helping people who suffer from these conditions and is a way of obtaining resilient and protective factors for clinicians and caregivers.

Visitors to Eastern countries are struck with how relaxed and satisfied their people are with life in general. They are able to experience life as it is–without trying to change their circumstances and feelings.

Striving for an ideal or perfect state is not their goal. The Asian “ideal” is to behave in ways that promote “UNHAE” or the interdependence of the community.

An individual’s duty and responsibility is communal and extends to family, community, ancestors and to nature. The experience of harmony is valued above all things and the natural balance of feelings and thoughts is supported without fail.

It’s easy to see the difference when the pressure to be first in line, to make no mistakes, to approach the perfect, individual state is absent.

This perspective is not the only protective factor that works to shield individuals from feeling guilt and shame. The Buddhist belief in Karma is also a mediating factor.

It is this belief system called Karma that gives consolation, hope, reliance and moral courage to a Buddhist. When the unexpected happens and he meets with difficulties, failures, and misfortune, the Buddhist believes that he is wiping off a past debt.

Instead of resigning himself, leaving everything to Karma, he makes a strenuous effort to pull the weeds and sow useful seeds in their place, for the future is in his own hands.

Teaching by Example

People who suffer with survival guilt and PTSD are particularly sensitive and aroused by the atmosphere around them, such as visual and auditory stimuli. They are also sensitive to tones of voice and to gestures and behavior.

Clinicians and others can pay attention to how they speak, move and the office setting when they are helping a survivor. These are things that are often overlooked in the busy world of therapy but they are extremely important when helping a person with survival guilt.

The initial goal when interacting with a survivor is to build the trusting relationship based upon who they are and whatever their feelings may be. This emphasis is not new for clinicians but can be emphasized in words and in behavior that conveys the message of welcome acceptance. For survivors, clear and simple communication helps them to manage their emotions.

In the course of helping the survivor and following the example of Eastern guides, it’s important to convey that the expectation for recovery and healing is to bring positive values and goals into a new and satisfying state.

This process does not annihilate the old program but adds new and positive themes for balance and resilience–leading to a “new normal” realizing it will not be a “perfect” of ideal emotional and cognitive state.

The individual can be encouraged to reflect upon the Western belief system that encourages striving competitively for perfection and to consider that there are more comfortable ways to experience life.

Memory plays a vital role in helping the survivor re-write the script of the trauma in a way that is safe and as comfortable as possible .

Memories for traumatic events are stored in long term memory and re-surface in consciousness when triggered or aroused. When they surface, they are the dominant focus of attention and fragile. They engage visual and auditory components of the memory system and can be amenable to change.

This process is strenuous for clinician and client when it is the primary focus of therapy but can be approached in a simple and more comfortable way. In the Eastern tradition, the individual who becomes anxious uses the strategy of chanting, praying, and engaging in a simple ritual that effectively shifts the attention focus to a positive domain.

This shift is a useful technique to practice with clients and can use the resources of their imagination and past positive experiences to construct the ritual or “chant” that best suits them.

Finally, our Eastern guides are powerfully connected to the outer environment of family, community, nature, the spiritual and ancestral world.

For those whose survivor guilt has caused ruptures in family relationships and isolation from social activities, the re-integration process can begin with use of episodic memory. People can be encouraged to recall positive experiences with family, friends, pets and nature and then describe them in as much colorful detail as possible.

Bringing these episodic memories forward will re-direct attention and working memory to the experiences. With repetition, they will open the door to writing a new a positive story that mediates the fear response of PTSD. This creative process exercises many systems within the mind to support flexibility and resilience.

Soldier photo available from Shutterstock

Survivor Guilt and Re-Opened Wounds