Mental health

Emma Mudge, Senior Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at AXA Health

What causes guilt and how to overcome it


12 July 2023

Guilt is a common human emotion that we might all experience at some point. It arises when we feel remorse or sadness about a past action that we believe has caused harm or has goes against our moral principles. How we respond to guilt varies from person to person, influenced by our own unique values and emotional processing. Some people might dwell on a situation, while others may not give it much thought. It’s important to recognise that guilt is part of our moral compass and understanding how we navigate and cope with it is a personal journey. 

Types of guilt

Guilt falls into two categories – healthy, appropriate guilt and unhealthy, irrational guilt.

Appropriate guilt

 Feeling guilty for a justifiable reason is a sign that our conscience and cognitive abilities are working properly to stop us repeating or making mistakes. This gives us the opportunity to learn and change our behaviour in the future.

The perpetual feeling of guilt is known as ‘guilt-proneness’1 and people who experience guilt prone-ness are believed to have a strong connection with their own and others’ emotions.

Irrational guilt

When we mistakenly assume responsibility for a situation, or overestimate the suffering caused is another matter entirely and can be very damaging if we don’t take steps to resolve it.

Excessive irrational guilt has been linked to mental illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, dysphoria (feelings of constant dissatisfaction) and obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD)2. It can cause sufferers to believe they’re a burden to their loved ones and those around them. Unchecked guilt can also result in flagging concentration and productivity, low mood, increased stress and lack of sleep. As a result, our relationships, daily actions and overall outlook on life can be badly affected.

What can we do to stop these feelings spiralling out of control?

Here are our tips for handling guilt

  1. Practise mindfulness: Mindful meditation focuses on breathing as a way of paying attention to the moment. This can connect the mind and body and help put your guilt into perspective. For more information on mindfulness, read our article: Everyday mindfulness | AXA Health 
  2. Distract yourself with whatever helps you relax: Your favourite music, a book, some exercise or just a breath of fresh air.
  3. Be proactive: if you feel that your guilt is justified, and you’ve come to this decision through rational thinking, take action. Learn from your mistakes, make amends and move on.
  4. Don’t beat yourself up about it: Constantly revisiting past mistakes won’t benefit anyone, least of all yourself.
  5. Remember that perfection doesn’t exist: looking for the perfect solution can lead to mental ‘gridlock’, which is unhelpful. Learn to accept the ‘best’ solution for the circumstances instead and keep a sense of perspective.

There’s no magical solution to guilty feelings. But if they’re justified, it’s much healthier not to try and get rid of them. Instead, accept them and use them to behave more positively in the future.


  1. Guilt proneness – Science Direct 
  2. Guilt associated with mental health issues - WebMD

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