Survivor Syndrome

Survivor Syndrome, also known as concentration camp syndrome (or KZ syndrome because of the German term Konzentrationslager) or survivor guilt, is a mental condition that may occur when a person survives a traumatic event in which several died. It may be found among survivors of armed conflict, natural disasters, epidemics or even among the friends and family of those who have died by suicide. The patient, however, thinks that they must have done something wrong, simply because they survived the ordeal.
Symptoms of Survivor Syndrome can include a subset of known behaviors, including loss of initiative, stereotypy, perseveration of thought and action, hyperkinesia, hypokinesia, and, in extreme cases, akinesia or cognitive paralysis[1]. Even premature aging is a sign of this syndrome. It seems that people sometimes lose the will to live because of the traumatic memories they have to endure every waking moment[2].

Symptoms characteristic of Survivor Syndrome are often intensified or precipitated when the person is exposed to situations or activities that resemble or symbolize the original trauma (e.g., cold snowy/hot humid weather or uniformed guards for survivors of death camps in cold/tropical climates).

When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published in 1994, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific psychiatric diagnosis, and redefined as a significant symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

[1] Leach: Maladaptive behavior in survivors: dysexecutive survivor syndrome in Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine – 2012
[2] Ryn: The evolution of mental disturbances in the concentration camp syndrome (KZ-syndrom) in Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs – 1990

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