I ran across a very interesting story on my Twitter feed this morning titled “This Is Your Body on a Shame Spiral” from Elle. Normally I’m not too fond of Elle, but since this story is related to mental health and the effects of a particular emotion/reaction on the brain, I felt it was poignant enough to talk about.
First off, there’s no doubt that stress has an effect on the body, but what exactly is shame do to us? The article states that:
“…the automatic, built-in physiological experience of shame involves the circulatory and nervous systems, along with tiny muscles in the face and other larger muscles.”
What’s particularly interesting is that shame has the exact same physical effects on the body in every person, especially at a young age. The physiological effects go top to bottom, meaning the reaction starts in the brain and works its way down to the muscles. You can view a closeup of the article’s diagram by clicking here.
Shame is a kind of stress that can cause problems in the body, and where the problem occurs most is in the overproduction of cortisol, which can lead to an elevated heart rate and constricted arteries. Cortisol, according to the article, is the “primary stress hormone” in your body, so you don’t want to produce too much of it. You also don’t want to produce too little of it, as it “curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation.”
Unfortunately, Elle’s article does nothing to tell the reader how to prevent the harmful effects of shame, or how not to feel ashamed in the first place. I fully realize that there’s probably no solution that involves eliminating shame, and I don’t believe that we should eliminate shame. Having a healthy amount of shame keeps us from being complete jerks in life. It’s a natural response to embarrassing situations. But how much is too much?
For those who suffer from a mental illness, debilitating shame can be the largest factor on stress levels. If you feel ashamed because you’re mentally ill, it can be hard to shake that feeling. Learning confidence and not to feel afraid of what other people might think is an excellent solution to this particular stressor, but it’s not so easily done!
Until we as a society learn to accept mental illness as an actual illness, and not just a stigma that paints an image of a “psychopath” or “crazy person,” this shame will be difficult to overcome. In the meantime, we need to be supportive of each other, as well as ourselves, and assure each other that there is nothing to be ashamed of. This positive reinforcement is essential to wiping away the shame and stereotype of mental illness.
It is possible. Our first step to eliminating the stigma is that we have to believe that.