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Guilt: A Distressing Effect of Anxiety

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 four critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges as well as a self-help book on acceptance and commitment therapy. 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.

14 thoughts on “Guilt: A Distressing Effect of Anxiety”

  1. 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.

    1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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!)

  3. 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.

    1. 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!!

  4. 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.

    1. 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.

  5. 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…

    1. 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.

    1. 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-ways-to-reduce-anxiety-and-guilt-now/ 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.

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