Excessive Guilt in Children May Lead To Adult Depression and Other Mental Disorders, Researchers Say January 8, 2015

Excessive Guilt in Children May Lead To Adult Depression and Other Mental Disorders, Researchers Say

Guilt gets a bad rap, but I like that guilt exists. In fact, I’d say guilt and remorse are indispensable if we’re going to have a society that isn’t run purely on impulses, greed, and self-interest.

The trick in handling guilt is to (over time) calibrate your conscience to determine which things you ought to feel guilty about (stealing yes, masturbation no), as well as the level of guilt that fits the moral transgression.

I’d venture to say that religion — strict religion, especially — inhibits both those processes.

The consequences of getting guilt wrong can be dire.

Via the Atlantic:

Some scientists now believe that extreme feelings of guilt in children … can be a strong warning sign for mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and bipolar disorder later on in life. Research has long linked excessive feelings of guilt to mental disorders in adults — the DSM-V lists feelings of excessive guilt as a symptom for depression. But researchers at Washington University in St. Louis have found that excessive guilt in children might be linked to a part of the brain that is connected to controls for several different mental disorders.

As a part of a 12-year study, the researchers looked at a part of the brain called the anterior insula, which regulates perception, self-awareness, and emotion. Smaller anterior insulas have been linked to anxiety disordersdepression,schizophrenia, and other mood disorders.

The St. Louis researchers don’t mention religion. In fact, they concentrated on a physiological factor rather than on behavioral or psychological ones. In particular, they examined the size of the anterior insula, a part of the brain that regulates perception, emotion, and self-awareness. The smaller the anterior insula, the greater the potential for feeling excessively guilty — and the greater the likelihood of future mental disorders.

Obviously, behavioral science has its own insights into how guilt is formed.

In a study published in 2013 by scientists at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, researchers found that parenting tactics that created feelings of guilt in children caused children to feel an increase in distress and anger for many days afterward. In another study published in 2003, scientists found that children whose parents used guilt-inducing tactics were far more likely to internalize their problems. … Depression and anxiety are classic examples of internalizing disorders.

It’s possible that I’m off-base with my assumption that (harsh) religion contributes to excessive guilt and from there frequently blossoms into mental disorders. Please weigh in if you can and make a case pro or con.

Speaking of depression, there are studies suggesting that people who aren’t religiously affiliated suffer from depression and commit suicide at higher rates than the religious do (but not necessarily because of too much guilt). Freethinker Richard Carrier has admirably taken that research apart here and here.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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