Shame Can Affect Your Health

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Shame is a powerful emotion that can have significant effects on our physical and emotional health. Recent studies have shown that feeling shame reduces immunity, lowers cognitive function, and elevates inflammatory processes. Understanding the relationship between shame and health can help people to feel more empowered and better able to take control of their lives.

Research has shown that certain populations experience higher rates of shame than others. This is especially true for those with dyslexia and its sibling conditions, such as dyscalculia and dysgraphia. This is, in part, because they have to work harder and longer to understand the world around them and often make mistakes as a result.

According to experts from the Science of Behavior Change Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, shame is a highly unpleasant emotional experience. It is characterized by feelings of inadequacy and guilt that may either be overperceived or may result from actual differences in a person’s abilities.

A boy looks off into the distance, looking hopeless. Feelings of shame can affect health.

Shame can affect emotional health. People who feel shame often experience negative emotions like anxiety, depression, stress, anger, loneliness, and isolation. Feelings of shame can make people feel as though they are unworthy of love and belonging. This can lead to further social exclusion and increase the likelihood that people will engage in unhealthy or risky behaviors such as substance abuse.

It is also important to be aware of the ways that shame can affect the lives of people with learning differences. Many people who are diagnosed with dyslexia also deal with other struggles such as social anxiety, perfectionism, and depression. These additional challenges can make the experience of having dyslexia even more stressful and can result in higher levels of shame and self-criticism.

Shame can affect physical health too. Feeling ashamed, at least occasionally, is fairly common for most people; however, people who feel shame on a regular basis may experience more serious symptoms that can be detrimental to their health and well-being.

Sally Dickerson, PhD, of Pace University in New York has studied the effects of shame extensively. In her article, “Shame and the Dismantling of the Self,” she writes that “Shame is an emotional response that occurs when we attribute our shortcomings to an intrinsic flaw in ourselves.” She goes on to say that “the core belief underlying shame is that we lack something that makes us worthy and valuable…the more unworthy we feel about ourselves the more shame we are likely to feel.” Shame can become a vicious cycle when we are unable to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and imperfections.

Her studies of shame’s effects on health are profoundly impactful. One such study entitled “Immunological Effects of Induced Shame and Guilt” documented that people who wrote about traumatic events in their life where they blamed themselves developed very different body chemistry than participants who wrote about events in their lives that they viewed to be neutral.

Participants who were made to feel ashamed had lower production of white cells and higher levels of the cytokine interleukin-6 in their blood than those who were merely upset. Elevated levels of interleukin-6 are associated with increased inflammation and decreased immune function.

The research team also found that participants who had high levels of interleukin-6 were more likely to report symptoms of depression or anxiety and were less likely to participate in physical activity.

Another research study conducted by Dr. Dickerson in conjunction with the University of North Carolina School of Medicine found that students who reported experiencing feelings of shame were significantly more likely to experience headaches and digestive issues than those who did not experience any shame. These students also reported a higher level of overall pain, higher levels of depressive symptoms, and lower levels of self-esteem and overall health than their peers who reported no shame.

Shame can affect the brain’s health too. Researcher Cesare Cavalera, PhD, of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart has documented the fact that negative emotions including shame can cause a reduction in working memory. This reduction can impact learning as well as other day-to-day functions.

Studies have shown that those who are shamed can have difficulty making decisions and can even become suicidal. In Cavalera’s writings, he discusses the devastating impact shame can have on a person’s sense of self as well as on their ability to make sound decisions. Shame impacts our ability to form and maintain healthy relationships both at work and at home. It also influences how we view ourselves and how others view us. In extreme cases, it can lead to the inability to function effectively at all.

Because shame can affect health in so many ways, it’s important to provide emotional support to young dyslexic learners and those with other learning difficulties. Proper emotional support can help to alleviate feelings of shame and hopefully reduce or eliminate the negative health consequences that accompany those feelings.

There are many different ways to approach the topic of shame with students who struggle with reading and/or math difficulties. Start by explaining that everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Emphasize that mistakes are just a part of life and learning and growing from them is an important part of being human. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your own imperfections because human beings are far from perfect!

A photo where a boy looks directly at the viewer, smiling and looking positive.

In order to combat feelings of shame, it is important for people with learning differences to have a strong support network comprised of friends and family who understand what they’re going through and can provide them with unconditional love and encouragement. In addition, people with learning disabilities can take steps to address their own feelings of shame by practicing self-care and making time for themselves each and every day.

For example, they can schedule time to relax with family and friends. It can help if they take time to get out of their heads and into their bodies through exercise like walking, stretching, swimming, etc.—taking a hot bath after a long day can help too. Overall, it is important to teach students that feelings of shame are completely normal and can be triggered by a number of different factors. Everyone feels a certain amount of shame from time to time, but it’s important to remember that it is a temporary feeling that will pass with time and support.

Disclosing feelings of shame or guilt can go a long way toward reducing stress and anxiety and improving health. Learning how to deal with long-term feelings of shame is a process that takes time and requires the assistance of trained professionals. It can sometimes be difficult to admit when you are struggling, but seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. If you or someone you love are struggling with feelings of shame and need help finding a solution, please reach out for support. You are not alone; there is help available.

Here are some warning signs that can signify that someone with learning disabilities is experiencing severe shame and/or self-hatred:

  • Isolation from others, disturbed sleep, and difficulty concentrating
  • Health problems like stomach issues and headaches
  • Reduced energy levels, and lack of interest in activities that they once enjoyed
  • Excessive electronic usage, use of drugs or alcohol
  • Withdrawal from society and/or avoidance of social situations
  • Low self-esteem leading to increased anxiety
  • Feelings of guilt and inadequacy
  • Self-doubt and insecurity
  • Aggressiveness, sadness, feelings of hopelessness

Bear in mind that shame can be displayed in different ways and each person can experience it differently.

Thank you for reading about how shame can affect health. For a thorough discussion of dyslexia, you may enjoy the second edition of my award-winning book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know, available in softcover, hardcover, eBook, and audio. In addition to facts on testing and accommodation, my book gives you the tools to provide the social and emotional support children with dyslexia require.

Cover of the book Raising a Child with Dyslexia: What Every Parent Needs to Know by Don M. Winn.

And to learn more about how every student best learns to read, you may also enjoy Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent’s Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention, by reading specialist and shortlisted World Literacy Award nominee Faith Borkowsky.

Cover of the book Failing Students or Failing Schools? A Parent's Guide to Reading Instruction and Intervention by Faith Borkowsky.

Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.