Feelings of Guilt in Childhood Hidden Cause of Adult Depression

Posted on December 2nd, 2015
Posted in Depression

Thanks to new research out of Washington University in St. Louis, a neurological factor that ties excessive childhood guilt to depression later in life has been discovered, which may help explain why excessive, persistent feelings of guilt, shame and failure are linked to a multitude of other mental health conditions.

Guilt in adulthood is a frequent companion of psychological disorders, a tell-tale symptom that may fade with time if treatment for mental illness is successful. But lurking in the background in many of these conditions is another type of guilt, a remnant from the distant past that can return to wreak vengeance on its victims.

Psychologists and psychiatrists know that many mental disorders have their roots in childhood. Between the ages of 4 and 12, these conditions can lay dormant inside the wounded psyches of young boys and girls, set to awaken at a later stage of life. Childhood guilt has been considered one likely suspect to explain the presence of these secret disorders, based on research that shows a connection between childhood exposure to excessively critical parenting styles (considered likely to produce feelings of guilt) and a tendency in children to internalize (repress) emotional distress. Until just recently, however, hard evidence to confirm the reality of the relationship between guilt in childhood and adult mental illness had been non-existent.

Guilt, Depression and the Anterior Insula

But that situation has changed. As revealed in the November edition of JAMA Psychiatry, a team of researchers from Washington University in St. Louis has uncovered a neurological factor that links excessive childhood guilt to depression in adulthood. Specifically, there appears to be a direct relationship between guilt at an early age and developmental problems in a part of the brain called the anterior insula. This neurological region regulates emotional balance, perception and self-awareness. When a person possesses a smaller-than-normal anterior insula, he will be more likely to suffer from depression—as well as other mood and behavioral disorders—when he reaches adulthood.

The Washington University scientists selected 145 children to participate in their study, monitoring the kids’ physical and emotional development over a 12-year period. Between the ages of 3 and 6, the children were evaluated for guilt and depression based on behavioral reports collected from parents and other caregivers. From the age of 7, they were given repeated brain scans using fMRI technology to track the development and maturation process of the anterior insula as well as other relevant structures.

In total, 47 preschoolers tested positive for depression—and all of them displayed symptoms of pathological guilt. Among the non-depressed youngsters, approximately 20 percent were found to be suffering from excessive amounts of guilt, so the presence of this emotion didn’t automatically translate into depression. But significantly, both groups of guilt-ridden children were found to be lacking in anterior insula brain tissue, and since this area does not regenerate, each of these kids will face an elevated risk of depression.

As the Washington University researchers themselves admit, the cause-and-effect relationship here is uncertain. Abnormal development of the anterior insula may have preceded the appearance of guilt and/or depression—it may have been a genetic condition, in other words. But then again, the guilt these kids experienced may have been caused by growing up in caustic or stressful home environments, and the mental trauma associated with it may have stunted their natural neurological evolution.

More research will be needed to solve this aspect of the equation. But regardless of what came first, anterior insula underdevelopment is a red flag. Kids who suffer from this neurological malady will be prone to guilt and depression and will face a great risk of the latter in the future. Brain scans such as that performed by the Washington University researchers could have real value as a screening tool, providing an early warning instrument to put parents, educators and doctors on the lookout for signs of mental health troubles in the young people for whom they are responsible.

Why Do So Many Women Suffer From Depression?

Women suffer from depression at almost twice the rate of men (9.5 percent to 5.6 percent, according to the latest numbers from the federal government). The differential between the sexes begins to manifest at a tender age, during adolescence, when 7.4 percent of girls and 4.0 percent of boys meet the criteria for depression. So something is happening here that requires further explanation, and it appears to be related to events or circumstances associated with youth.

These new research findings may open doors of understanding that can help young girls and women who are struggling to recover from the pain and emptiness of this life-altering mental health disorder. If it is eventually discovered that developmental problems in the anterior insula are more common in young girls than in young boys, this would help explain why women suffer from this condition more frequently than men.

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