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Your Brain On: Guilt

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Walking around with a guilty conscious is no fun. And new research suggests everything from your immune system to your behavior goes haywire when you try to live with a shameful secret.

Recognize Your Bad Behavior
Whether it’s the morning after a big night out or five minutes after handing in a bogus report, several areas of your brain fire up when you behave in guilt-inducing ways. First and foremost, a study from UCLA found markers of inflammation and levels of the stress hormone cortisol both spike almost immediately among people who feel a sense of shame. These brain chemicals can screw with your sleep, mood, and immune system, making you more likely to toss and turn or come down with a cold while grappling with your guilt, research shows. 

At the same time, your brain’s frontolimbic network (and a few other regions linked to primitive, deep-seated emotion) kicks into gear, finds research from the University of Manchester in the U.K. Basically, these are the parts of your brain that know you messed up and that you should feel crappy about it. The same study found that several other areas of your noodle start humming in response to those guilty emotions too. These include the superior anterior temporal lobe, which allows you to compare your own bad actions with the actions of other people in a your social circle. Also in the mix: your brain’s adjacent septal region, which helps you decide how much blame or outrage your behavior warrants.

Like a sympathetic friend or a well-paid therapist, these different brain regions are helping you determine just how awful you should feel about yourself, the U.K. research suggests. And, in most cases, they’ll help you find ways to forgive yourself or overcome your transgressions—whether that means 'fessing up or putting the incident behind you. 

RELATED: Do You Have Friend Guilt?

The Next Hour or Day
In response to your initial wave of bad feelings, your brain will try to find ways for you to feel better about yourself, indicates research from Carnegie Mellon and Washington University in St. Louis. This tends to unfold in two predictable ways, the study authors say. One: You’ll be overly sweet or nice to the people you betrayed or hurt. Two: You’ll be extra nice or helpful toward everyone. You do this in order to balance your moral scales and to help yourself feel less like a jerk, the study authors say.

Another, darker coping mechanism: You may seek out ways to physically punish yourself, says Brock Bastian, Ph.D., a psychologist at Australia’s University of Queensland. Bastian and colleagues found that people experiencing guilt were able to hold their hands in a bucket of frigid ice water longer than those with no feelings of wrongdoing. The researchers concluded that pain “makes us feel like the scales of justice have been rebalanced." 

Carrying Around Your Guilt (Literally)
People talk about feeling “weighed down” by shame, and research from Princeton suggests that it's more than a figure of speech, reporting that people experiencing guilt actually felt like their bodies had grown heavier. That’s not all: The guilty study participants had a tougher time completing physically demanding tasks than their guilt-free counterparts. The researchers attribute this to something called “embodied cognition.” Basically, your strongest emotions have the power to affect the way you feel physically, not just emotionally. (Other experiments have found carrying around a secret also makes you feel physically heavy, or burdened.)

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