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Strong Feelings Of Guilt In Childhood Can Affect Brain Development


Research suggests that children who are prone to feelings of intense, excessive guilt are at increased risk in adulthood of developing various psychiatric disorders. These include :

   – bipolar disorder

   – depression

   – anxiety

   – obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

A longitudinal study (Belden et al.), published in JAMA Psychiatry, involved a group of 306 children of school age identified (through primary caretaker reports) those from the group who had a propensity towards showing excessive signs of experiencing guilt.

When brain scans of the children were undertaken it was found that, of the original group of 306 children, those who had been identified as being prone to suffering excessive guilty feelings during their childhoods had, on average, SIGNIFICANTLY SMALLER ANTERIOR INSULAE than the children from the group who had NOT shown signs of excessive feelings of guilt during their childhoods.



What is the anterior insula and what are its functions?

The anterior insula, part of the brain’s insular cortex and involved in the brain’s limbic system, plays a large role, amongst other functions, in our subjective emotional experience, including compassion and empathy, as well as in our self-awareness and interpersonal experience.

The anterior insula and psychopathology

In relation to its involvement with how we experience our emotions, the anterior insula is also involved in psychopathology (various mental disorders). Indeed, anterior insulae that are of significantly reduced size have been linked to schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorders.


It was inferred from the above that extreme feelings of guilt in childhood are associated with smaller anterior insulae which, in turn, increases the risk of the later development of mental disorders such as depression.


This study adds weight to existing research that has previously shown a link between feelings of extreme guilt in childhood and the later development of psychopathology, especially internalizing mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Therefore, if a child is suffering from extreme guilt feelings, early therapeutic intervention is vital in order to reduce the risk of the development of further psychiatric problems in later life.

David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).




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