Guilt: A Distressing Effect of Anxiety

Thursday, July 7 2016 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Guilt is an effect of anxiety, and is also a cause. Guilt and anxiety create a vicious cycle. Do you experience any of the anxiety effects listed here?

Guilt is a distressing effect of anxiety. Guilt is the uncomfortable experience of self-flagellation for thinking, feeling, doing, and generally just existing,wrong (These Awful Effects of Anxiety Must Stop). Anxiety is the loud, critical voice in our head that provides a running commentary on the things we do wrong (wrong from anxiety's perspective, that is). As if it weren't bad enough to worry, fret, and fear that we've done something wrong, anxiety takes our discomfort to a new level. A very distressing effect of anxiety is guilt.

Anxiety Effects Amplify the Guilt of Making Mistakes

The ability to empathize with others and to see things from their perspective are great qualities that help us form close connections with others. When we can empathize and perspective-take, we are aware of others' needs as well as our impact on others. This allows us to understand each other and to know if we've wronged someone be it intentionally or unintentionally. It's a natural reaction to feel bad and apologize.

This is all good and part of what defines our humanity. Those who don't live with a great deal of anxiety can say sorry, make things better, and move happily forward. For those of us who live or have lived with anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder, mistake-making isn't quite so straightforward. A very uncomfortable effect of anxiety that complicates matters is guilt (Guilt and Mental Illness).

Guilt Is an Effect of Anxiety

Merriam-Webster defines guilt as, "a bad feeling caused by knowing or thinking that you have done something bad or wrong."

And what causes the "thinking that you have done something bad or wrong?" Anxiety causes the feeling, and guilt is the effect.

Just some of the worries and guilt anxiety puts in our heads include:

  • You said the wrong thing, and you need to worry about it and feel guilty about hurting people.
  • You should have spoken up. That wasn't very nice. You should feel guilty.
  • You asked him to run to the store, and he got into a car accident. It's your fault. You should feel guilty.
  • The quality of your work was poor. Think of the people who have to work to make up for it. You should feel guilty.

But Guilt Then Causes Anxiety

Guilt is an effect of anxiety, and it simultaneously is a cause. It's a vicious cycle: anxiety causes guilt which in turn fuels more anxiety.

People living with anxiety tend to blame themselves and take responsibility for other peoples' happiness. It's not enough to want others to be happy; indeed, anxiety and it's effect, guilt, tell us that others' problems and negative experiences are somehow our fault.

As a result of this cycle of anxiety and guilt, people living with anxiety overthink things, read into expressions, tones, gestures, and words. This can be wearing, increasing the symptoms of anxiety:

  • Physical symptoms -- Anxiety and guilt can cause headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, sleep disturbances, and more.
  • Emotional symptoms of guilt as an effect of anxiety can involve feeling on-edge, defensive, irritable, sorrowful, and a feeling of desperation to apologize and make things better.
  • Behavioral symptoms of anxiety and its effect, guilt, can include clinginess, over-apologizing, trying to take action to compensate for the supposed transgression, and other attempts to please others, avoid judgment, and other actions meant to right perceived wrongs and/or repair relationships.

Guilt is a very distressing effect of anxiety. Anxiety and guilt have a mutual cause-and-effect relationship that makes the cycle difficult to break. It is possible to reduce guilt, one of anxiety's effects.

Stay tuned; the next article will explore how to deal with guilt.

Let's connect. I blog here. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. My mental health novels, including one about severe anxiety, are here.

Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC

Tanya J. Peterson is the author of The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She speaks nationally about mental health, and she has a curriculum for middle and high schools. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

View all posts by Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC.

Guilt: A Distressing Effect of Anxiety

Jacky
says:
June, 1 2017 at 9:06 am

Thank you for your article. Where can I find how to deal with guilt.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 3 2017 at 3:27 pm

Hi Jacky,
Guilt isn't easy to deal with, but it certainly isn't impossible. It can be significantly reduced so it doesn't plague you. (Guilt is a human emotion that won't ever disappear because it can serve a function and even be healthy, but unhealthy guilt can be eliminated.) I have another article here on HealthyPlace about reducing anxiety and guilt: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2016/07/five-way… Also, GoodTherapy.org has information on guilt as well as a therapist finder tool: http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/guilt. Keep doing what you're doing -- seeking and reading information. That's an important part of the healing process.

annisa
says:
June, 8 2017 at 1:34 am

Hi...at last i found article about what i feeling, i got panic attack 3 month ago, till now its make me feel for anything,i still take my cbt but now i feel other feeling beside i still feel worry and fear now i feel guilt,,everything what i do make me feel guilt...at last i dont want talk with my friend n always upset...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

June, 8 2017 at 1:07 pm

Hi Annisa,
You're definitely not alone in experiencing guilt -- it's not just you. CBT can be a very effective approach to overcoming the negative thoughts that prevent us from fully living life. CBT doesn't always help everyone or every issue. If you find that it isn't helping, you might want to search for information (HealthyPlace, Psychology Today, and Good Therapy all have helpful information) on acceptance and commitment therapy and solution-focused therapy ( also called solution-focused brief therapy). Either of these can be very effective in combating things like guilt, anxiety, fear, and negative thoughts in general.

NW
says:
June, 30 2017 at 11:45 pm

Thank you for your article. I think I needed the reminder of the self-perpetuating parts of anxiety (in its many forms) which for me is linked with panic disorder and PTSD. I work on it every week - however I'm not much of a reader. Today I felt guilty and snapped (in my head I snapped at least) as a friend made me feel guilty that I wasn't immediately available. It's so true that we try to please others - in all honesty I prefer to try and make others happy and know that isn't the most healthy approach. Anyhow I'm struggling to find the words to write what I want to say now - so thanks again and I'm off to read the next article.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 1 2017 at 8:04 pm

Hello NW,
Thank you for leaving a comment. Don't worry about finding words -- we process things in ways other than words, and I think your meaning makes perfect sense. Wanting to make others happy can be a good thing, as it's part of what connects people. It should be a back-and-forth relationship, each wanting to help the other be happy. And you are "someone," too so never forget that you can think of making yourself happy.

-A-
says:
July, 6 2017 at 9:52 pm

Hi, I really liked the article. I recently found out about my anxiety a few months ago. It has flipped my world upside down. I struggle with guilt a lot in my anxiety. I have been caught questioning myself almost every day about if I am causing my own anxiety. Is my anxiety my fault. Am I being selfish. Honestly I am so confused.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 10 2017 at 5:09 pm

Hello -A-,
Confusion is a very frustrating part of anxiety. Anxiety can make us second-guess ourselves, think that we're at fault, believe we're not good enough, etc. An important first step is knowing that all of this confusion is part of anxiety. Anxiety absolutely is not your fault, nor are you selfish! Recognize those thoughts as anxious thoughts and start paying attention to something else. The thoughts will still be there (at least for awhile), but you aren't caught up in them -- especially the thoughts that are guilt-based!!

Vanessa
says:
September, 7 2017 at 9:16 am

Hi Tanya, I really feel you understand and I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the guilt after calling in sick because of anxiety, but making it pass as an "accepted" sickness. I always feel afterwards like I should imprison myself in my room and basically bring myself to sickness. Does anyone feel that way? Thanks for any input.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 8 2017 at 7:50 am

Hi Vanessa,
You are definitely not alone, and hopefully other readers will weigh in on feeling guilty for calling in sick because of anxiety. It's not right, but there is still a strong belief in society that mental health issues like anxiety are "lesser" or not legitimate, and that people "shouldn't" call in sick for anxiety, etc. That's a change that is needed and will happen slowly. For now, think of yourself rather than society's attitude. If you are calling in sick because you don't feel well and feel like you won't be able to do your job right (and it sounds like this is true), you are using the illness policy for exactly what it was designed for. You don't have to imprison yourself and make yourself physically ill! :) Think of how calling in sick will help you get back on track and do your job well when you return. Practicing self-care so you can do your job well is proactive and is a sign of strength. (And just because society says that calling in sick for anxiety is wrong doesn't make that a truth. It's an opinion!)

Julia
says:
December, 10 2017 at 2:56 pm

Thank you this really helped me the way that you explained the causes of anxiety.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 19 2018 at 10:07 am

Hi Julia,
Thank you so much for your feedback! I appreciate it.

-A
says:
January, 17 2018 at 11:43 am

Hello!
So I have really been struggling with the constant sick feeling of worrying and feeling guilty. I reached a heart rate of 155 today when I was at my peak level of worry. I know this is not good for my health and I need some advice. I have made mistakes that have hurt someone I love dearly and we have made peace with it. But, even though we have made peace and it’s been over a year I am now finding myself wanting to talk about the smallest of mistakes and in the end only causes more worry. I know this is probably anxiety but I just cannot do this anymore I feel like I’m going crazy. Please help me.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

January, 19 2018 at 10:14 am

Hello A,
Anxiety absolutely makes people feel like they're going crazy. The good news is that you are not doing that (you are still aware of and in control of your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors even though you don't always like them). A very effective practice to help you with this situation is mindfulness. Your guilt and anxiety are pulling you back into the past and keeping you stuck there. When you ruminate about things in the past, they affect what you think, feel, do, and say in the present. Mindfulness helps you stay in the present. Begin to catch yourself thinking about the past and feeling guilty, gently remind yourself that you are living right now, in this moment, and the other person is at peace. Use all of your senses to keep you rooted in the present moment, and allow yourself to have time to settle back into the present before you talk about problems. If you find that mindfulness isn't enough (it does take some time to work, so be patient with yourself), you might find it helpful to work with a therapist for support in overcoming guilt and anxiety.

In reply to by tpeterson

Mukesh
says:
March, 2 2018 at 11:52 pm

I have recently finished vipasnna meditation. I have anxiety with some guilt. What i m observing now that after 10 day meditation course my anxiety n associated guilt become more severe. I did the course with full sincerity. But the things which more helpful is knowing the reality about thoughts and that they are not under my control. Whatever happened in the past was not done under full awareness and i cant control n change them. Start accepting the anxiety n whatever guilt. Like other body parts these good/bad thoughts are also my parts and i accepts. Not trying to change past neither future. Just acceptance.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Tom
says:
March, 2 2018 at 8:02 pm

I feel for you I really do I'm in same position as with regards feeling guilty because I'm not there for someone in his worst times and I know he'd be there for me he's a great man and love him dearly and should be there alot More for him and it's eating me up inside

C
says:
February, 3 2018 at 6:55 pm

I feel so guilty about something I’ve done like a year ago and I keep on thinking about it. It just won’t stop. I’ve been having a lot of anxiety about it and it prevents me from doing things I want to do. I’ve also had some panic attacks. This guilt feeling is haunting me every day and I don’t know how to stop it.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 5 2018 at 10:31 am

Hi C,
Guilt has a way of completely consuming us, and it can grow bigger and bigger if we let it. It's not a "you" thing -- it's a human thing. You're not alone. Your description of what's happening is very accurate. It gets in the way of our lives, and it replaces positive thoughts and emotions with negative ones. You can stop it. It's a process that takes patience and time. It has grown for an entire year, so it will take effort to shrink it. It's worth it.
If you can do anything to repair the situation, that might help. Addressing the problem rather than avoiding it often goes a long way toward healing. Sometimes, that's impossible. So if you can't do this, that's okay. Many people find that doing something symbolic helps them heal, such as volunteering for an organization that has something do to with the situation (an organization that promotes sober and distraction-free driving, for example), donating something (blood, money, time, etc.) in someone's honor.) These may be extreme, but they're fairly common examples. If you can take any kind of action, no matter how small, you will be doing something positive and just might find that you are less haunted.

Something else you might look into is acceptance and commitment therapy. It is helpful for many things, and it is especially helpful for guilt. This article is a quick introduction to what ACT is. Although the focus of the article is on anxiety, it still provides an overview that applies to dealing with guilt: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/07/stop-avo…

PD
says:
February, 6 2018 at 9:25 am

I took some old pain medicine that I hid from my wife for about a month. I came clean, I was not addicted, but the guilt and shame of taking it has caused me to have panic attacks and nearly constant anxiety. I can't sleep, eat, etc....I can barely work without almost constant anxiety medicine. I weaned off Kloponin about a year ago and everything in my life was going perfectly. I just feel I really let everyone down and screwed it up.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 5 2018 at 10:58 am

Hi PD,
Guilt and anxiety definitely have a way of taking over, distorting our thoughts and emotions, twisting things so that we no longer see the truth. Anxiety and guilt lie, and when we buy into the lies (it's easy to do because they're so compelling), we become more anxious, feel more guilty, and don't see clearly. This is a function of guilt and anxiety. You're not alone in this, and it's not a flaw. Many people find it helpful to begin to separate the lies from the truth, and doing that starts in the present moment instead of the past. In revisiting our past actions, we (all humans) tend to see the negative and find things to reinforce our guilt. So instead, it can be helpful to stay in the present. Take your present moment at face value and simply observe. Did you really let everyone down? Did you really screw things up? Two approaches that can be effective in dealing with guilt and anxiety are acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and mindfulness (mindfulness stand on its own, and it's also a part of ACT). This article gives a brief overview of ACT: https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2015/07/stop-avo… Creating ways to pay attention to what's going on now can go a long way in helping you to forgive yourself and let the past go.

Tom
says:
March, 2 2018 at 8:19 pm

Can't work can't live my life can't set goals can't rest. Alls I can do is think ahead of the worst times to come and it is and will be misery I'm 27 my dad is sick myou sister is seeking medical care in different country because she's sick I was sick all three of us had cancer plus I am in a critical condition mentally to which I'm scared of life and suffering I spend my days in the house keep getting turned down for disability and do question at what point is the fight worth it I'm no good to no one mostly to myself and am a letdown when I'm depended on it just wonder alot because the thoughts I have is do feel I'm losing my mind and have lost touch with human kind plus no one truly understands and they don't even try life is a fight and by the looks of things from my experience there's only one winner.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 5 2018 at 11:06 am

Hi Tom,
You are dealing with a great deal. These resources have the potential to provide support, connection, and help. The first is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They listen and can provide immediate support, and they can connect you to other resources. The other two are online therapy services (there are many; these two are among the best).

www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org -- 1-800-273-8255
www.betterhelp.org
www.talkspace.com

Maggie
says:
April, 21 2018 at 9:59 pm

Hi, ive been dealing with anxiety for over a year now and sometimes i feel guilty for complaining about it too much since i know there are so many people that deal with so many conditions that are worse such as schizophrenia and diabetes and who knows what else, sometimes i just feel like im being selfish on talking about how bad my anxiety is when my life has been relatively good, do you know how i can get past it?

April, 27 2018 at 12:20 pm

Hi Maggie,
Anxiety and guilt are evil twins! Before I share a thought, I want to explain what I will not be saying (because it might sound like this, but it isn't). I won't tell you to brush it off or forget about it. People used to tell me these things when I was stuck in the very thing you're describing. I knew that most of them were well-meaning so it didn't upset me, but it also didn't work. It just added an extra layer of guilt and anxiety because I'd feel terrible for feeling that way on top of everything else! Anxiety can really take hold of your (everyone's) thoughts and wreak havoc. One good way to get past it, ironically, is accept that you have the thoughts, which means acknowledging them without judging them. Then, you can begin to tell yourself, "I'm having the thought that other people have it worse" instead of "I wrong for complaining because other people have it worse." When you see your words just as thoughts, you don't have to assume they're true. Also, keep reminding yourself that there's no comparison to others. Right now, for you in your life, anxiety and guilt are making things difficult. This is your experience, separate from everyone else's. That's part of acceptance, too. This was just one small suggestion to begin distancing yourself from your anxious thoughts and guilt. Working with a therapist can be extremely helpful. You might want to consider that possibility. Therapists are there for everyone no matter what their challenges are, so you won't be dismissed as "not as bad as others." :)

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