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What is COVID-19 survivor’s guilt?

The ongoing pandemic has brought many mental health implications for those who have recovered from the virus or lost a loved one

With family photos seen in the foreground, Dianne Green works on an art project in her home in Chicago.
With family photos seen in the foreground, Dianne Green works on an art project in her home in Chicago on Wednesday, March 24, 2021. Green said she struggled with loneliness after several family members died in 2019 and early 2020.
Martha Irvine, Associated Press

The world is two years into the worst pandemic in 100 years. As COVID-19 continues to evolve and outbreaks continue to surge in various places, the implication of collective trauma on mental health has become increasingly prevalent, says Healthline.

What is survivor's guilt?

Survivor's guilt is “when someone feels guilty for having survived a traumatic incident that others did not,” reports CNN. Although not a formal psychiatric diagnosis, survivor’s guilt is often considered a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

  • Often, those struggling with survivor’s guilt feel regretful, remorseful or even angry that they survived when others did not, says Healthline. These feelings of unfairness and helplessness can lead to physical symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping.

Essentially, survivor’s guilt is a complex grief experience, reports Healthline.

How common is survivor’s guilt?

Pre-pandemic, survivor’s guilt was primarily associated with those who had survived a life-threatening situation such as war, the Holocaust or 9/11, reports Healthline.

  • Survivor’s guilt is particularly common among veterans and first responders.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic has brought collective trauma, no one is immune from experiencing survivor’s guilt, says Healthline. Some individuals may find themselves with an increased risk of mental health challenges, including those who got sick and recovered or who have lost a loved one.

  • Health experts have warned of the emotional toll of the pandemic, says CNN.

Coping with mental health implications is an expected — albeit difficult — part of pandemic recovery, reports The Daily Star.

How can you cope with survivor’s guilt?

According to CNN, everyone experiences survivor’s guilt differently. For some, the feelings will subside within a moderate amount of time. For others, these feelings can persist for a long time or can grow increasingly difficult.

  • Anyone who thinks they may be struggling with survivor’s guilt is encouraged to talk to someone they trust and seek professional help, says CNN.

Self-compassion and community support can be particularly helpful for people to heal from the pain of traumatic experiences and lessen feelings of guilt, CNN reports.