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Anxiety and Guilt

By Layne Wood ; Updated August 14, 2017

To a certain degree, anxiety and guilt are normal human emotions. Anxiety and the anticipation of feeling guilt afterward help protect us from regrettable decisions. However, feelings of anxiety and guilt are not always rational or helpful, and the two emotions are often connected or cyclical. Some people experience these emotions to a degree that interferes with their daily lives. A mental health professional can make a diagnosis and recommend a course of treatment.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, affects more than 3 percent of the U.S. population. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, “women are twice as likely to be affected.”

Symptoms of generalized anxiety occurring for at least six months can lead to a diagnosis of GAD. Symptoms include constant, uncontrollable and often irrational worry or guilt that might cause insomnia, upset stomach, irritability, muscle tension and difficulty concentrating.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a strong and continuous emotional reaction in people who have witnessed or endured a traumatic event, such as violence, a car accident or a natural disaster. Emotions associated with PTSD include anxiety, depression, guilt, anger and fear. Symptoms often include flashbacks, nightmares and irritability.

According to the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center of Northern Illinois University, “After a traumatic event, people tend to overestimate their ability to have predicted what was going to happen and this overestimation can lead to increased assessment of culpability and self-blame.”

Members of the military, particularly those who served during a war, often suffer from PTSD. They might experience extreme, debilitating guilt because they lived when so many others died, or because they had to kill or injure other people in the line of duty.

Borderline Personality Disorder

People who suffer from borderline personality disorder, or BPD, might experience bouts of depression or anxiety followed by guilt or anger. Self-mutilation and drug or alcohol abuse are sometimes symptomatic of BPD. People with BPD often feel that they do not deserve to be happy, so they engage in self-sabotaging behaviors that affect relationships and their work. They might get caught in a cycle of self-destruction, guilt and depression or anger.

Anxiety and Guilt in Children

Children can experience a number of anxiety- and guilt-related disorders. They might feel pressured to achieve academically or socially, and often feel guilt if they believe they have not lived up to their parents’ expectations. Children might experience anxiety and guilt when suffering from generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder.

Treatment for Anxiety Disorders

Depending on the type and severity of the anxiety disorder, treatment might involve therapy or medication. Some people choose to self-treat, either on their own or through the use of self-help books or motivational audio or video resources.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques are often successful treatments for generalized anxiety disorder. Treatments like exposure therapy might be used in PTSD patients. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a common type of medication used to treat different forms of anxiety.

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