By Alanna Hilbink

You survived. The hardest part is supposed to be over. So why do you still feel bad, sad, afraid and even guilty?

Survivor’s guilt is complicated and confusing. Surviving is complicated and confusing. But you’ve done it once, you continue to do it, and you can keep doing it. And with the right help, you can let go of the negative feelings that make it seem so difficult. You can begin to find ease and freedom in life while still respecting and honoring the past.

Is Feeling Guilt After Combat Normal?

Black soldier in uniformGuilt and shame are normal reactions to combat. You’ve been through an incredible, stressful experience. Your friends and family at home may not understand. But this does not mean you are alone. The Department of Veterans Affairs shares, “Guilt related to trauma is very common. Upwards of 40 percent of people with PTSD report some guilt related to their trauma.”1

Your experiences are unique, but you will find there is a huge community of peers and professionals who understand what you’ve been through, how you continue to feel and what you need to move forward.

Why Do I Feel So Guilty?

After a combat experience or other traumatic or stressful event, your brain reacts the best or only way it knows how. This sometimes results in feelings of guilt. An article from CNN explains that survivor’s guilt can be “an expression of grief and loss … [It] is just part of working through complex feelings after experiencing a traumatic event involving deaths and a way of mourning. But it may become all-consuming and impede functioning.”2

Survivor’s guilt is normal and can be healthy to a degree. However, when it begins to interfere with your life, happiness or health, it’s time to take action.

What’s “Wrong” With Feeling Guilty?

There’s never anything “wrong” with any feeling or emotion you have. Every single one is valid, important and capable of teaching you something. Feelings become a problem when you can’t move past them. They are a problem when they create a false, negative sense of self or reality. They are a problem when they are a symptom of an existing or developing mental health issue like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. This is when you need to ask questions, get help and move through and past your feelings. Guilt, fear, sadness and anger are human experiences. Getting stuck in any one of these doesn’t have to be.

There’s nothing wrong with feeling guilty, but you do need to take steps and get help and support when you continue to experience it. The Department of Veterans Affairs says, “Guilt can contribute to the development and maintenance, not just of PTSD, but other posttraumatic distress and psychopathology, too, including depression and substance use. And, when guilt is present, it can exacerbate posttraumatic distress, such that people with high trauma related guilt tend to have more severe PTSD.”1

“Research suggests that the presence of guilt can make PTSD more challenging to treat,” the VA website continues. “Trauma related guilt also increases the risk of suicidal ideation among people with PTSD.”1 There’s nothing wrong with guilt, but if you try to ignore it, will it away, or simply struggle silently, you leave yourself vulnerable to new or worsening problems. You leave yourself open to more guilt. Getting help means ending the cycle of guilt or shame.

How Do I Cope With My Feelings?

Although there’s nothing inherently wrong with any one feeling, you don’t have to let guilt or shame take over your life. You can learn how to cope with these feelings. With professional help you can learn how to use them as tools and move past them.

Psychology Today explains, “After trauma, as people struggle with the meanings and the significance of their own actions they then make new choices for how to behave. Seen this way, it is often through such inner conflict that posttraumatic growth can arise. Rather than try to eliminate all traces of guilt we have to find ways to transform its destructive power into a transformative positive force.”3

Guilt, PTSD, mental health and addiction issues all have the potential to transform your life — for good! When you choose treatment, you give yourself the opportunity to grow. You learn to harness your emotions and your experiences. Guilt becomes a guide to becoming who you want to be rather than an emotion getting in the way of your health.

Don’t hesitate to reach out to compassionate, understanding professionals. Learn how you can find freedom from guilt and shame.


1PTSD 101 Course.” Department of Veterans Affairs, December 2014.

2 Landau, Elizabeth. “Surviving with the Guilt of Living.” CNN, July 24, 2012.

3 Joseph, Stephen. “Guilt May Be a Top Factor in PTSD.” Psychology Today, December 2, 2011.