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All of us struggle with the consequences of poor choices at some point. When we do, it is normal and even good to feel guilt about what we have done wrong. But for depressed persons, there is often a nagging sense of guilt that is unattached to any specific action. A steady diet of self-blame unconnected to a definable behavior is part of what makes depression such a dark and hopeless place to be. A recent study conducted through the University of Manchester took a look at what may be the cause of generalized guilt when depression strikes.

The study used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to examine the brains of 25 people who were at least one year into recovery from major depression and compared those to the brain scans of 22 individuals who had never been depressed. The study participants were instructed to envision certain vignettes, such as behaving assertively or ungenerously toward a very close friend. Afterward, the subjects were questioned regarding how they felt about behaving in this manner toward someone they cared for.

The scans showed that people with a history of depression felt ashamed when they felt directly responsible for an action, but not when they felt angry toward another person or were able to shift blame to another person. The brain scans revealed differences in areas associated with guilt and proper behavior compared to never-depressed brains. In the brains of those who had been depressed, there was not a strong link between guilt and what the person recognized as appropriate behavior.

In other words, it seemed that depressed brains are unable to readily identify exactly what is/was wrong about certain actions. This inability to clearly identify specific wrong behavior can lead to generalized (unidentified) guilt over many things. The person feels self-reproach but they cannot identify exactly why, therefore their guilt encompasses all sorts of actions which may or may not deserve reproach. This sort of sweeping shame is in keeping with Freud’s assertion that depression is characterized by an overwrought sense of self-reproach and guilt.

People who live with nagging guilt become insecure and full of self-questioning. They wonder if they talk too much or too little, if they behave appropriately or inappropriately in a given situation, they are unsure about nearly everything they do and say. Clearly, learning to identify what is wrong and right behavior is a major step forward in relieving generalized guilt.

Learning to identify specific wrong actions and deal with them can be tough for anyone, but when a person is dealing with depression it is a skill that can bring hope and liberation from the constant shadow of gloom. Apart from being able to identify specific wrong actions, there are other things a person can do to move past undefined guilt. Getting exercise, taking charge of negative thought cycles, laughing, and regular self-examination are all ways to keep a small wave of guilt from swelling into a tsunami.

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