A circle with the words " the guilt cycle ".

Understanding Survivor’s Guilt: Causes and Coping Strategies

Sad and horrific things are a part of life that we cannot escape. However, how we respond to these events can make or break our mental health. As a life coach for entrepreneurs, I want to provide emotional support to help you through the difficult seasons of life.

In this article, we will define survivor’s guilt and create a plan for recovering from unresolved emotional issues.

What is survivor’s guilt?

Survivor’s guilt is a psychological condition that occurs when a person feels guilty for surviving a traumatic event or tragedy in which others did not survive. This phenomenon is commonly associated with situations such as natural disasters, accidents, combat, acts of violence, or other life-threatening events.

People experiencing survivor’s guilt may question why they survived while others did not and may feel unworthy of their own survival or happiness. This complex emotional response can lead to feelings of sadness, anxiety, depression, and a sense of responsibility for the suffering of others.

I want to share with you my client Raul’s survivor story (not his real name).

Raul’s Survivor’s Guilt Story

Note: All names in this story have been changed to protect the privacy of my client. Also, this story contains gun violence. Reader discretion is advised.

A Small Town That Suddenly Became Famous

In this idyllic small town where people still go to sleep with their front doors unlocked, Raul and his family live an unassuming life. Raul is a business owner of a local hardware store, and his wife is a homemaker. They have three children, two of whom are in college, while the youngest, Tiffany, is a high school student.

At that time, Tiffany attended a private Christian academy. One day, Raul received a phone call that he would never forget. 

The phone rang repeatedly in his office at the store. At first, he ignored it, figuring the caller would leave a message. But the persistent calling forced him to answer the phone.

It was his wife, Claire.

“There was a shooting at Tiff’s school,” Claire said in between sobs and hysteria.

“What did you say?” Raul asked. He couldn’t believe what he had just heard.

“Shots were fired at Tiff’s school! The school evacuated everyone. I am going to get her. Thankfully, she is okay.” Claire replied in an elevated, near-hysterical voice.

“Raul? Are you okay?” Claire asked. Raul replied, “Oh yeah, just get Tiff back home as soon as you can.”

He was anything but okay.

Gratitude and guilt

A former student barged into the front door of Tiffany’s high school with an assault weapon and pumped the school with bullets. 

There were multiple casualties. Fortunately, law enforcement came in time to subdue the shooter before any more students or faculty could be hurt or killed. Tiffany was one of the lucky few who was nowhere near the shooter. She was swimming in the pool.

When Tiffany came home, there was a mixture of sadness and gratitude. One of Tiffany’s friends, who had dined with Raul many times, had died that day. That night, nobody, especially Raul, could sleep well.

Raul did his part to support the community. He attended the memorial service at the school and helped raise funds to financially support families impacted by the shooting. 

Despite his goodwill and generosity, Raul felt guilty that his daughter had survived while other children had died.

A once stocky man, Raul, lost 25 lbs within 2 months. This was not due to a diet, but rather self-imposed shame. He believed that he had failed to protect his daughter. Raul’s desire to eat was affected by this. He was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by his therapist. 

The guilt cycle was literally eating Raul away emotionally and physically.

Once we believe we cannot do enough, that is usually when we go above and beyond what is needed and necessary.

The Guilt Cycle 

Everyone reacts to tragedy in many different ways. Guilt is one of the ways to respond to it; however, if you are not careful, it can easily take you to a place of misery.

Here is a brief example of the guilt cycle through Raul’s story.

A triggering event that causes an emotional reaction. Raul was initially shocked and quickly spiraled into despair.

Next, Raul created a false narrative to justify his irrational state of mind. He labeled himself as not “doing enough,” shaming himself because his daughter lived while so many other parents lost their children.

Finally, Raul decided to assuage his guilt by not eating (punishing himself for living) and donating his time excessively while emotionally abandoning his family when they needed him most.

The guilt cycle is shown below pictorially.

A circle with the words " the guilt cycle ".

As I mentioned earlier, if we are not careful with how we process our reality, we can quickly spiral into misery. 

The section below explains the process of transforming guilt.

How Guilt Transforms into Misery

Once we begin down the path of self-pity, we may experience one of three emotional states: depression, anxiety, or shame. Perhaps you’ve encountered one or more of these before; I refer to them collectively as the “misery train.”

The misery train can take you to one of three destinations:

Depression: Feeling that everything you do is pointless and only leads to failure.

Anxiety: The fear that everything will crumble and fall apart if someone discovers the truth or if you fail to achieve a specific goal within a certain timeframe. (This is typically where I prefer to end up.)

Shame: The belief that others will reject and disparage you once they discover how flawed and imperfect you are.

If you feel trapped on the train of despair, don’t give up hope; a path to freedom exists, and it begins with your mindset.

Next, we will talk about what to do if you are experiencing survivor’s guilt and how you can escape from feelings of shame, low self-worth, or anxiety.

A diagram of the misery train with some words in it

Escape from Misery

The key to escaping misery lies in challenging every thought that crosses your mind and questioning its validity. This includes recognizing how anxiety has a sneaky way of playing mind games.

Here are a few thought-provoking questions to prevent you from succumbing to despair:

– How do these thoughts help your current situation?
– What is the worst-case scenario? 
– Which steps can you take to improve your situation or circumstances?

Reclaim your inner strength from the clutches of negativity and destructive thoughts. 

Believe in yourself because you have the power to overcome!

Final Thoughts about Guilt

This article does not intend to resolve survivor’s guilt, but it aims to provide context on how poor mindset or negative thinking can distort one’s perception of reality. If you have recently experienced a tragic event, please seek professional medical and mental health counseling.
Please consider working together with me if you need ongoing support with your improving your self-worth and identity.
Dig deeper: Click here to listen to an episode from my podcast about the power of your mindset, or press the play button below.


The information in this article is for informational purposes only. No material in this article or website is to be a substitute for professional medical and/or mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you read from me or anyone else online.

Also, this article is not designed to diagnose or treat you or anyone with a suspected mental health illness. Please, if you need help, seek appropriate help from a lawyer, health care provider or law enforcement officer.

Add A Comment