PTSD, Guilt, and Shame

Whether the trauma is something that happened to you, or whether it was something you witnessed and were unable to stop – feelings of guilt and shame are a very common reaction. Often, you end up going over and over in your head what you could/should/would have done differently, endlessly punishing yourself for whatever you did or didn’t do.

…Ever wonder why that is?

Well – I have an answer for you.

I’ve written previous posts about how PTSD is based on a survival reflex going awry (and if you’ve missed those, go to the “start here” button at the top of the page – they’re all there and you can catch up).

Basically – PTSD is based on a survival reflex. When something bad happens, your survival reflex kicks in to figure out, “How can I protect myself from going through something like this again?” That’s what your survival reflex is supposed to do – figure out how to keep you safe.

…The problem is, sometimes you did nothing wrong. Sometimes, there’s nothing you could have done differently. The reality is that the world is sometimes unpredictable, bad things sometimes happen to good people, and sometimes, we don’t have control over our circumstances.

Unfortunately, our survival reflex simply isn’t designed to understand any of that – it has one job, and that is to keep us out of harm’s way. When it can’t, it assumes that we did something wrong and we should have done something different – so, it sends our mind in relentless circles of should/could/would haves, and fills us up with feelings of guilt and shame over whatever actions we took.

Feelings don’t create facts; if they did, then everybody buying a lotto ticket because they’re feeling lucky would be a millionaire.

So – just because your survival reflex makes you feel guilt and shame, doesn’t actually mean that you did anything wrong. Those feelings, as intense as they sometimes are – those feelings are simply a byproduct of how reflex works. Your survival reflex is trying to make sense of what happened. It’s trying to do its job and protect you, and it’s getting stuck.

Do your best to keep that in mind; it’ll help to put the guilt and shame in perspective.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel free to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Larry Jaipaul, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy content, including photographs, from Coming Back Home without permission.

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