Understanding Survivor’s Guilt

9/11 Memorial

Where were you on 9/11?

We all have our own story. Maybe you watched the news unfold on TV in your college dorm room, shaking and sobbing. Maybe you heard the news spread through the halls of your elementary school, feeling confused and scared, longing to go home. Or maybe you listened to the car radio while driving to work, feeling numb from the shock.

Perhaps you were in one of the locations that was attacked and you remember every sight, every smell, every detail of that horrific day.

Trauma Statistics for 9/11

9/11 was a trauma felt by every American — 4% of U.S. residents experienced PTSD after the attacks. But those who directly survived the attacks felt the effects most intensely: people who ran out of the burning buildings, first responders, rescue workers, and folks who worked or lived in downtown Manhattan or near the Pentagon in Virginia.

A study published in JAMA found that people who were in New York City during the 9/11 attacks experienced PTSD at a rate of 11.2% in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. But New Yorkers are resilient people, and most were able to return to normal (or a “new” normal) within a few months or a year.

However, for many people who experienced the attacks first-hand — those who had been in the WTC buildings during the plane crashes and building collapses — the psychological impact lasted much longer. According to a study from the American Psychological Association (APA), 13% of WTC survivors had PTSD symptoms 14 years after the attack, and 68% had symptoms of depression in conjunction with PTSD.

Much of this is because of the sheer trauma of witnessing something as immensely disturbing as 9/11 — and believing in many cases that your life was about to end. But many of the mental health issues that persisted for 9/11 survivors has to do with something called “survivor’s guilt.”

What is Survivor’s Guilt?

Pasquale Buzzelli, who survived the collapse of the north tower on 9/11, told NBC News that he continued to experience survivor’s guilt, even ten years after the attack. “I should be happy,” Buzzelli said. “[T]his tastes better — and then you feel guilty about surviving. You think about the dads that didn’t see their daughters being born.”

Buzzelli’s description of survivor’s guilt is spot on. People who survive accidents, attacks, wars, mass shootings, natural disasters, or other traumatic events often can’t fully let themselves experience the joy of having made it out alive. They are wracked with guilt, depression, and symptoms of PTSD.

Although survivor’s guilt is no longer an official psychological diagnosis, it is experienced by many survivors. It’s similar to PTSD, but with a heavier feeling of guilt associated than simply PTSD.

Symptoms of survivor’s guilt include:

  • Flashbacks and obsessive thoughts about the event
  • Feelings of disconnection
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Depression
  • Feeling unmotivated
  • Nausea and digestive upset
  • Suicidal ideation

Anyone who survived a trauma can experience survivor’s guilt or PTSD, whether or not they have a history of mental illness. However, having a history of childhood trauma, abuse, mental health disorders, or substance abuse makes it more likely that you will experience survivor’s guilt.

Healing From Survivor’s Guilt and PTSD

If you are experiencing survivor’s guilt after 9/11 or any tragedy, please know that you are not alone. Experiencing these feelings — even many years after the event is common and understandable. There is no shame in having these feelings.

Therapy

That said, if these feelings have lingered for many years or have made it difficult for you to function or enjoy your life, help is out there. Finding a therapist who specializes in trauma is a great place to start. Therapy can be a safe place to let all your feelings out, and to receive gentle guidance and helpful tools for how to manage your feelings so that you can live your best life.

Survivor’s support groups

You can also consider joining a survivor’s support group. There are many out there, including those specific to the type of tragedy you may have witnessed (you can find more info about 9/11 survivor’s groups here). There is something incredibly healing and freeing about connecting with others who experienced the same trauma you did. You will soon find that your feelings are normal, and this can bring a great deal of solace.

Your support system

It is also very helpful to reach out to family and friends for support, if possible. It can be difficult to share such intimate feelings even with those we love, but it’s one of the best ways to heal. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), survivors who experience self-blame after a tragedy are more likely to experience psychological disturbances. At the same time, one of the most impactful ways to heal from a trauma is to have a strong support network.

Most importantly, remember that if you are experiencing survivor’s guilt — even years or decades after an event — there is nothing wrong with you. You are only human, and we all heal from things differently, and at our own pace. It’s not too late to feel better.

Published by

Wendy Wisner

Contributor