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Overcoming Guilt in Depression
“There is a voice that says I’m doing something terribly wrong and that I’m a
horrible person,” said Therese Borchard, author of the book Beyond Blue:
Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Most of Bad Genes.
In the book, Borchard lists the many things she f eels guilty f or, everything
f rom not cleaning the house to letting her kids eat more candy to worrying
too much to being overly candid with her writing to overeating. And that’s just
a snippet she jotted down while penning that page.
If you also have depression, you, too, probably have a list. And you, too,
probably can relate to the gnawing, stubborn and heavy weight of guilt.
It’s guilt that can lead to self -doubt or even self -harm. For Borchard, guilt
sparks insecurity, indecision and even poor decisions. “It colors my decisions
and my conversations and I’m always second-guessing myself .”
Some research may explain why people with depression f eel especially guilty.
A 2012 study f ound that individuals with depression respond dif f erently to
guilt than people without depression. According to the news article about the
Investigators used fMRI to scan the brains of a group of people after remission from major
depression for more than a year, and a control group who have never had depression. Both groups
were asked to imagine acting badly, for example being “stingy” or “bossy” towards their best friends.
They then reported their feelings to the research team.
“The scans revealed that the people with a history of depression did not ‘couple’ the brain regions
associated with guilt and knowledge of appropriate behavior together as strongly as the never
depressed control group do,” said Zahn, a MRC Clinician Scientist Fellow.
“Interestingly, this ‘decoupling’ only occurs when people prone to depression feel guilty or blame
themselves, but not when they feel angry or blame others. This could reflect a lack of access to
details about what exactly was inappropriate about their behavior when feeling guilty, thereby
extending guilt to things they are not responsible for and feeling guilty for everything.”
Depression dampens a person’s reasoning and problem-solving f unctions, said Deborah Serani, PsyD, a
psychologist and author of the book Living with Depression. “This is why a person can f eel unrealistically
negative about himself , f eel guilty or responsible f or things that he might not truly believe if the depression
wasn’t active.”
5 Tips t o Help Chip Away at Your Guilt
Of course, guilt isn’t something that simply dissolves with several quick f ixes. But you can slowly chip away at
your guilt. The below tips may help.
1. Move your body.
According to Serani, “Getting physical will lower cortisol, increase endorphin f low and awaken your senses.” It
also helps people with depression think more clearly and f eel better overall, she said.
2. Shift your thoughts.
“Feelings of guilt can set a depressed individual into a cycle of negative thinking; each thought worsening into
a deeper, more hopeless f rame of thinking,” Serani said. That’s why working on your thoughts is key. Serani
suggested revising negative thoughts into positive thoughts or using positive imagery. She gave examples
such as “I can do this,” or “I’m light and f loating on blue beautif ul water.”
3. Remember guilty thoughts are not facts.
Borchard f inds it helpf ul to remind herself that her guilt is just a voice. “Once I say, ‘Oh, there’s the guilt,’ I can
put some distance between me and the guilt.”
4. Try humor.
Borchard also f inds that humor can lighten the heaviness. For instance, she ref ers to guilt as “my ‘mini-Vatican’
or something like that. I always laugh when my doctor reminds me that, of all the depressive symptoms I have,
guilt will probably be the last to leave me.”
5. Try visualization.
In Beyond Blue, Borchard describes a visualization technique her therapist recommended. Borchard writes:
“She told me to imagine myself driving a car along the highway. Whenever I get one of those guilty
thoughts, my car is out of alignment…it’s dragging right. So I pull over and assess the problem. I
check to see if I need to make any adjustments. If I stole something, I should give it back. If I
wronged someone, I need to make amends. Then I merge back on to the highway.
Each time my car wants to rear off the main drive, I should ask myself, Is there something I need to
do? If not, I need to get my car back on the road.
For many people with depression, guilt is a real and stubborn symptom. It manipulates the f acts and
exacerbates your mood. But while guilt can be persistent and overwhelming, it also can be managed and
Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor at Psych Central and blogs regularly about
eating and self -image issues on her own blog, Weightless.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 31 Mar 2013
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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2013). Overcoming Guilt in Depression. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 17, 2013, f rom

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