Natural Disasters
Thursday, March 11, 2010
By: Dr. Susanne Babbel

Survivor Guilt in the Wake of A Natural Disaster (Such as the Haiti Earthquake)

One unfortunate side effect of a calamity such as the recent earthquake in Haiti is a phenomenon known as Survivor Guilt. Obviously, Survivor Guilt affects those who are fortunate enough to survive a traumatic event such as a natural disaster.

The phenomenon of Survivor Guilt is especially insidious because those who are afflicted with it are under the impression that they have done something wrong, and that their own survival is somehow responsible for the death, injury or trauma of others.

Interestingly, The DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders—the professionals’ guide to mental illness and diagnosis) lists Survivor Guilt as a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and not as a malady in its own right. Like other symptoms of PTSD, Survivor’s Guilt is a distorted reaction to a traumatizing experience.

What Survivor Guilt Looks Like

Survivor Guilt is defined by a pattern of symptoms such as anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, sleep disturbance, nightmares/flashbacks, and emotional liability (instability). As we know, PTSD can also manifest as physical symptoms, which is the body’s way of expressing pent up stress.

Proactive Reactions to Disaster

Those of us who live in earthquake-prone places such as the Bay Area find it easy to feel empathy for those who are suffering in Haiti. After all, it could easily be us. And we can derive lessons from this tragedy.

Dr. Peter Levine, a well-known trauma therapist, offers the following suggestions, which he calls “Emotional First Aid” for trauma. (You can read the expanded version of this list here.

Fortunately, many of these suggestions are inherently practical in the wake of a natural disaster—such as an earthquake—that affects an entire community and displaces people from their homes.

1. Get together with family and friends for support.

2. Organize and meet in community/neighborhood groups.

3. Don't be isolated.

4. Try to get the information about your loved ones ASAP… without getting hooked on traumatic images on the TV.

5. Refocus on your resources and support systems, and keep your mind occupied.

6. Stay active, volunteer, and help.

7. Encourage people and yourself not to tell their stories in a repetitive way which ultimately deepens the trauma.

Therapy for Survivor Guilt

Once Survivor Guilt has been diagnosed, therapy is of course the most appropriate form of action.

A therapist working with a traumatized victim of a natural disaster will help the patient to formulate alternative and more positive views on the situation and will also help the patient consciously recognize how their own trauma is affecting their behavior. It’s important for the afflicted person to understand that their own actions did not cause or exacerbate the situation, and that they in fact were a victim.

The next and most important step for conquering Survivor Guilt is to pass through an appropriate mourning process. Only then can the patient continue on with their life.

Author : Dr. Susanne Babbel Ph.D, LMFT
Dr. Susanne Babbel practices in San Francisco, CA. You can learn more about Dr. Babbel here on the Directory.