What Shame Does To The Brain? And Tools To Help. by Meeray Ghaly


If you grew up in the 90's, you may recognise this Tori Amos Album Cover (Image Credit Here). It came to mind as I was reflecting on the "physical shape" shame can induce in us.  

It can feel shrinking, or wanting to shrink, minimising and dis-connecting. 


This is how Brené Brown, renowned author, storyteller and researcher defines shame

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.
Shame erodes the part of ourselves that believes we are capable of change.
We cannot change and grow when we are in shame, and we can’t use shame to change ourselves or others.
— Brené Brown, PhD

Image Credit & Source Here: Christina's World, Andrew Wyeth, 1948. 


We have probably all experienced the discomfort of shameful feelings at some point.  

Embarrassment, rejection, failure, unworthiness, unlovability, 'un-wantedness'; it has powerful impact of how we see ourselves and are ability to relate to others. At a core level, as humans we desire and need connection, belonging, to feel wanted, part of a tribe, accepted and loved. 

When we don't feel connected and valued, as a protective measure, one thing humans do is withdraw from social engagement, the central nervous system does this to limit further pain.  


It can look like shutting down, numbing out, collapsing and “hiding,” and possibly "if you loved me enough, you would find me". 


To paraphrase, this is how Linda Graham, MFT describes the process in our body: 


Well into adulthood, any experience of rejection, humiliation, or betrayal can trigger this implicitly conditioned dorsal dive into feelings of shame and shut-down of the nervous system. 

In the immobilisation of the over-activation of the dorsal vagus nerve, the client’s neuroplasticity is 'offline', listening is muted, learning is blocked, and change is inaccessible, seemingly impossible.



So shame has a "freezing" quality to it. 

A haulting of learning functions. 


In thinking about the strong emotion of shame and the psychological impact that occurs, I felt drawn to Christina's Word, the painting by Wyeth above. 

It has 'paralysing' quality to it, both shrinking and paralysis. Like a 'halted' reality.

And "home", in the distance, perhaps symbolic of connection and true belonging, though it seems almost unattainable. 

I looked into the work, and discovered the story is powerful. The woman, Christina, was a paraplegic and the artist's dear friend, she used to crawl in the grass because this was the only way she was able to move about.


For reflection: Can you think of a time where you may have felt like Christina in the painting? 

How is the brain and shame linked?

Well, in her research Linda Graham discusses that toxic shame actually shuts down the nervous system and blocks the process of neuroplasticity and brain change (check out my article "What is Neuroplasticity And How Does It Relate To Neurofeedback?" to discover more). 


One thing we can do is find ways to recognise this feeling, and Brene Brown offers us a wonderful tool you can try when in those moments - here is her mantra:


Don’t shrink

Don’t puff up

Stand your sacred ground


Don’t shrink

Don’t puff up

Stand your sacred ground




Effective if practised often enough. 


I've put together a collection of Brené Brown's wonderful resources here if you would like to learn more, she researches compassion, authenticity, courage, trust, vulnerability and much more. 




Image Credit & Source Here: Tree Series, Pablos Herrero


Shift through Shift-ing. 

Moving through shame and other emotions using felt-sense movement and bodywork. 


Through powerful somatic and body-based techniques, I can guide people to safely revisit postures that represent memories of shame, sadness and stuckness. Once the neuroception of that feeling is recognised, I gently invite them to carefully and mindfully assume the opposite posture. 

Afterwards, having experientially felt the shift, we reflect together and gently explore the transformative exercise of moving out of one state and into another, this felt-sense experience allows the brain to recognise the possibility of change from paralysis into re-connection and trust. 

It would be a bit like "Christina" in the painting above, slowly getting to her feet and walking towards the house. 

If uncomfortable feelings seem to be getting in your way, or you would like to learn more about how to train your brain to function with more resilience and flexibility, feel free to get in touch.