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Recovery from Shame after Trauma

One of the most challenging aspects of trauma recovery is ridding ourselves of the emotion of shame. Not guilt, not that WE did anything wrong, but nonetheless an extremely common symptom of trauma. It can be tricky to spot as we tend to do all we can to bury it because it feels so awful.

Recovery from shame after trauma is not something we can do overnight.  For many of us, it does not happen quickly especially when our trauma resulted from attack or abuse by another person. The process takes courage and determination and requires that we are in a secure place, physically and emotionally:

  • Come out of darkness into light

As long as our shame is hidden, there is nothing we can do about it. The more we avoid it, the worse it gets and we cannot change our “internalised” shame until we “externalise” it. This is far easier said than done – “internalised” means that the shame has become a part of you and been buried deep in the subconscious. So a major part of healing is to bring it back into the conscious, by becoming aware of the thinking patterns that rule your behaviour and induce your painful feelings. This generally this process does not mean talking about all the traumatic memories – it is the EMOTIONS you are trying to access and release.

  • Consider why you were NOT to blame

This could be for any of the following reasons:

  • You were not old enough, not big or strong enough or you were outnumbered
  • You did not have the help you needed
  • It was an unpreventable act of nature or a complete accident
  • You were in the wrong place at the wrong time
  • You were lied to, threatened or coerced in some way
  • You did not have all the facts or adequate training

Is there someone else who should be bearing the shame instead of you? Have you taken their shame upon yourself? How can how transfer it to them or at least unburden yourself of it?

  • Use self compassion to heal shame

Until a few years ago, the subject of self-compassion had never been formally studied. Social psychologist Kristin Neff discovered that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism—a major characteristic of those who experience intense shame. Self-compassion is a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin, the hormone that increases feelings of trust, calm, safety, generosity, and connectedness. Self-criticism, on the other hand, has a very different effect on our body. The amygdala which is the oldest part of the brain, is designed to quickly detect threats in the environment. When we experience a threatening situation, the fight-or-flight response is triggered and the amygdala sends signals that increase blood pressure, adrenaline cortisol. This enables us to draw on the strength and energy we need to confront or avoid the treat.

Although this system was designed by evolution to deal with physical attacks, it is activated just as readily by emotional attacks—from ourselves and others. Over time increased cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the various neurotransmitters involved in the ability to experience pleasure. At the very basic physical level, your harmful talk is lowering the levels of good hormones and raising that levels of bad ones! The more shame we feel, the more deficient we feel and in turn, the more separate we feel from others. But self-compassion helps us to recognize our common humanity—the fact that we have all done things that we feel ashamed about and that we all experience the same pain in difficult times.

Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

Book a counselling session today!


See also: Trauma and the Freeze Response, Trauma and the Body, Trauma and Shame