Blame & Guilt: Depression Symptoms

Blame yourself for everything

About a month ago my cousin was in a life-threatening car accident. She was hit by a truck on a freeway and is extremely lucky to be alive. When I found out about it, I immediately blamed myself. For some reason, I felt guilty.

I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling; I wasn’t looking for attention. Looking back, I know that those thoughts are ridiculous and entirely irrational. Her accident had absolutely nothing to do with me, I wasn’t there. But at the time, the guilt was unbearable.

This isn’t the first time I’ve blamed myself or felt guilty for things that are not my fault, I have done so for most of my life.

Guilt is a natural and normal sensation, but sometimes a deep feeling of guilt about many or most areas in your life can signal depression. What’s different about the guilt a person with depression experiences, is that it can become all-consuming.

People with depression often scan their past, and sees only a series of failings. Sometimes the guilty thinking can become quite imaginative (my case is a perfect example of this), where the depressed person feels guilty for things that have happened external to them, and that are beyond their control.

My guilt and self-blame has become overwhelming at times, but even though I know that it’s irrational, I can’t stop it the voices inside my head.

Have you ever wondered why you blame yourself for everything when depressed?

Self-blame is one of the most toxic forms of emotional abuse; it amplifies perceived inadequacies, whether real or imagined, and can completely paralyse a person. Blame and guilt leads to shame, which leads to taking on responsibility that are not our own. This is a form of self destruction.

Over a century ago, Sigmund Freud (Austrian neurologist) determined that depression is fundamentally different from “normal sadness”, due to the presence of guilt. Now, a new study of the brain, shows exactly why he was right.

Researchers from the University of Manchester found that the brain scans of people with a history of depression differed in the regions associated with guilt and knowledge of socially acceptable behaviour, from individuals who never experienced depression.

The brain scans of people with depression showed a gap in neurotransmitter communication between two key areas, which may explain why depression is so hard to overcome, and relapse is so common.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of a large group of people after remission from major depression. The scans took place for over a year. Both groups (depressed and non-depressed) were asked to imagine acting badly, for example being ‘stingy’ or ‘bossy’ towards their friends. The group 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 behaviour together as strongly as the never depressed control group do.”

“Interestingly, this ‘decoupling’ only occurred when people prone to depression feel guilty or blame themselves, but not when they feel angry or blame others. This reflects a lack of access to details about what exactly was inappropriate about their behaviour when feeling guilty, thereby extending guilt to things they are not responsible for and feeling guilty for everything.”

– Dr Zahn, Clinical Neuroscientist, Psychological Sciences, University of Manchester.

Another study published in JAMA Psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine found that there are two insulas in the brain believed to be associated with perception, emotion, cognition and self-awareness.

The scans showed that the right anterior insula was much smaller in school-aged children diagnosed with depression. The JAMA Psychiatry study also discovered that the right anterior insula was smaller in school-aged children diagnosed with pathological guilt in their preschool years.

“That’s not a complete surprise because for many years now, excessive guilt has consistently been a predictor of depression and a major outcome related to being depressed.”

“A child with pathological guilt can walk into a room and see a broken lamp, for example, and even if the child didn’t break it, he or she will start apologising. Pathological guilt can signal clinical depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and bipolar disorders., an assistant professor of child psychiatry, said guilt is easy to spot in kids, as they are prone to it.”

– Andrew Belden, Professor of Psychiatry, Washington University School of Medicine.

In the study, 47 children diagnosed with depression and 82 non-depressed children were analysed for depression and guilt each year from age three to six. Some 55% of the depressed children had excessive pathological guilt as preschoolers. Only 20% of the non-depressed children displayed excessive guilt.

All children had MRI brain scans almost every 18 months from age 7 to 13. The researchers found that children with a smaller insula in the right brain hemisphere associated with depression or excessive guilt were more likely to experience repeated bouts of depression as they aged.

Effectively, it was found that guilt, early on, can shrink the brain, which may have caused the ongoing depression.

This is a scan of two brains, one depressed and the other normal, showing the different activity in the brain.

Brain scan by MayoClinic

There have been days where I think, how could I be so selfish to not feel like living, when someone out there would do anything to be in the position I am in? I am incredibly grateful for having food, a home, friends, family and so many other privileges in my life.

If you reading this and you have depression, please keep fighting. For so many years I didn’t understand why I felt so guilty. The tendency to blame oneself excessively and inappropriately is a key symptom of depression. It’s NOT your fault. 

Knowing this information about the brain has helped me to accept that guilt is part of depression, and that I need to try and stop blaming myself for things beyond my control. I hope this information helps you as well.

Please be gentle with yourself and remember that you are not alone.