JUL 28, 2015
All this week long, as part of our ongoing Shame Issue, ELLE.com will be digging into the uncomfortable, unacceptable, and universally human emotions that keep us down. Hopefully, by addressing these issues, we can make strides in banishing those feelings of guilt, fear, and not-enoughness. Here's to just letting. It. Go.
Shame is not caused by a single, immutable part of your body
"For starters, I always take those studies that appear to locate some feeling or attribute in one part of the brain with a grain of salt," Dr. Burgo says. "The brain is so complex, and all the parts so intimately interconnected, that I doubt having a smaller PACC alone means you are less likely to feel embarrassment." Okay, so scratch my original thesis...
Shame's effects are indeed very physical
"While it may one day turn out that there is a seat of shame in the brain," he says, "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." It's largely the same for everyone, and it involves pretty much the full body. Below, a map of how your body processes shame:
1) The brain signals the adrenal glands to release elevated levels of cortisol
2) The eyes look downward and avoid direct gaze
3) The cheeks blush
4) The neck and shoulders slump
5) The heart rate elevates, because
6) The adrenal glands released cortisol, which caused
7) major arteries to constrict, thus elevating heart rate, while
8) The major muscles are flooded with glucose
We all experience shame in a near-identical way
Dr. Burgo notes how the "physiological expression" of shame is so universal and innate that it's actually "identical in all children—at least until they learn how to control or conceal it." But of all the physical expressions of shame, perhaps the most concerning is the fact thatshame can elevate the body's levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone. While cortisol curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation, it also alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. Not something you want to happen to your body too often over an extended amount of time—which is why it's important not to indulge unnecessary shame spirals, both for your peace of mind and your physical health. Try to remember that the next time you feel your cheeks burning.