Tag Archives: Physiology Of Shame

3 Reactions Of Nervous System To Shame And Health Effects

 

 

INTERNALIZATION DURING CHILDHOOD :

I have described in several other articles that I have published on this site that if we were treated during our childhood by our parents / primary caretakers in an abusive fashion (e.g. made to feel worthless, unlovable, unwanted, inadequate, fundamentally flawed etc.) we are likely to internalize a very negative view of ourselves and, without appropriate therapy, go through life having to endure profound and pervasive feelings of shame that can severely impair our quality of life by making us feel unwanted wherever we go and of less worth than others (Pattison).

PHYSIOLOGICAL RESONSES TO SHAME :

In physiological terms, we respond to shame a similar fashion to how we respond to feelings of fear, danger and threat. In evolutionary terms, this response has come about because the perception of shame is linked to the fear of social rejection and ostracization which could, literally, threaten our distant ancestors’ ability to survive ; therefore, to be rejected from the group could be fatal.

In the modern day, of course, social rejection and ostracization is unlikely to prove fatal (unless, of course, it drives us to suicide) but our nervous systems still respond to perceived shame as it did for our ancestors i.e. feelings of shame are equated with being in danger and, as a consequence, the SYMPATHETIC NERVOUS SYSTEM IS ACTIVATED AND WE ENTER THE FIGHT / FLIGHT / FREEZE STATE.

In this state, the body is biologically prepared to deal with danger by either PHYSICALLY FIGHTING or RUNNING AWAY. However, as I have said, this response evolved to help our ancestors and is seldom appropriate in relation to modern day shame-inducing scenarios so, instead of physically fighting, we may become extremely angry and verbally aggressive (although in extreme cases a person might become physically violent) or hide ourselves away (e,g, by not leaving the house, avoiding people etc. – in extreme cases, a person might move to another town, country or, if things are particularly bad, perhaps, continent). This feeling of wanting to hide and escape is encapsulated fairly well by the expression : ‘I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me’ and, of course, by actions such as covering one’s face with one’s hands or averting one’s gaze away from others / looking down at the ground. To reiterate, all these shame responses are directly linked to the activation of our sympathetic nervous system and the potential danger to which our brains are alerted.

However, our most common response to shame is the FREEZE response (which involves part of the nervous system shutting down) because we can’t properly metabolize our feelings of shame via the fight or flight responses. This freeze response can give rise to various unpleasant symptoms such as dissociation, derealization and depersonalization. In this state we feel trapped, powerless and completely unable to help ourselves or change our situation. It can also deprive us of our ability to think clearly which Nathanson refers to as ‘cognitive shock’ – cognitive shock is a state of panic involving a desperate need to hide from or conceal our shame and stops us from being able to think in a rational way or to exercise moral reasoning (Nathason).

To reiterate : all three reactions to shame, i.e. fight, flight and freeze, are physiological repercussions to being in ‘survival mode’ due to perceived danger. When we are in ‘survival mode’, because all our mental and physiological resources are focused on, in effect, ‘keeping ourselves alive,’ it is almost impossible for us to feel empathy for others. 

Shame pervades our very sense of identity making us feel intrinsically worthless as a person, Furthermore, we are highly liable to ‘feeling ashamed of feeling ashamed‘, creating a viscious cycle whereby shame feeds off shame. (You may wish to read more about this in my previously published article about a phenomenon known as THE SHAME LOOP.)

Because being conscious of our own shame can be exquisitely painful, we sometimes repress it (i.e. block it out of conscious awareness) and protect ourselves from its poisonouis effects by employing psychological defense mechanisms. According to Nathanson, four such defenses we use against shame are :

  1. shameful withdrawal
  2. masochistic submission
  3. narcissistic avoidance of shame
  4. the rage of wounded pride

HEALTH EFFECTS OF CHRONIC SHAME :

I stated at the beginning of this article that feelings of chronic shame can stem from an abusive childhood, and it is also associated with PTSD, complex PTSD, social anxiety, body dysmorphic disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.

There is also research existing to suggest that chronic shame can lead to :

  • alcoholism
  • addictions
  • eating disorders
  • narcissistic rage leading to violence and antisocial behavior
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • weight gain

And, research suggests, because chronic shame is such a powerfully negative emotion, it can increase the level of stress an individual experiences leading to increases in the body of the stress hormone cortisol which, in turn, can impair both cardiovascular health and the immune system.

 

RESOURCES :

Dealing With Guilt and Shame | Self Hypnosis Downloads

or may wish to visit this website : The Healing Shame Center

 

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

 

Childhood Trauma Recovery