Guilt: A Distressing Effect of Anxiety
Thursday, July 7 2016 Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
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.