Dr. Gregory Jantz

How Shame Impacts Your Health

June 5, 2023

We’ve all laid awake in bed at night, replaying scenarios in our head. We think about things we could have done differently—what we should have said, how life might be better—if we had only put our best foot forward. As our stress levels rise, so does the shame we experience. That can keep a person tossing and turning all night,
sometimes for years on end.

Our bodies require sleep to process our experiences and support our immune system. Shame-induced insomnia is only one of the ways our bodies pay the price for our shame. We can find ourselves in a vicious cycle: health issues stemming from shame can undermine work performance and relational satisfaction, which in turn give way to more shame. In this way, shame can have a real impact on your physical health.

Over the past fifty years, scientists and researchers have made great strides in understanding the complexities of mental health issues. We now know that while behavior modification can alleviate some mental problems, such as anxiety and depression, oftentimes a more in depth solution is needed.

While the remedies for addictions such as alcoholism, gambling, overeating, or sex aren’t the same, there are common factors of which to note:

  • In my work as a mental health professional, I have never met an addict who didn’t struggle with shame. You can medicate and psychoanalyze an individual, and brief breakthroughs may occur, but they rarely last if shame is still present.
  • While addiction typically has a biochemical root, the road toward addiction is accelerated by the wounds shame brings.
  • Breaking free from mental illness and addiction often involves a multipronged approach involving spiritual renewal (breaking the bondage of the shame cycle), healthy emotional and mental habits, and (especially with severe depression and anxiety) medication.

It’s critical to remember that the most incendiary fuel for the firestorm of mental illness and addiction is shame. Understanding that fact—that shame is an enemy that must be defeated—is critical for breaking free from mental health issues or addiction.

Among the many varieties of shaming, in recent decades body shaming (also known as fat shaming) has become one of the most common—and most damaging. Body shaming occurs when individuals are judged negatively based on their physical appearance and ridiculed for it. Generally, men and women are fat shamed if they appear overweight or don’t fit the idyllic image of thin and beautiful. However, researchers note that thin shaming is also a negative form of judgment and bullying as well.

Psychologists and researchers specializing in media effects on the body and mind agree that body shaming has likely always been a problem in modern society to a degree. However, with the advent of the Internet and social media platforms, public commentary on all matters is at an all-time high, including bullying and shaming individuals for their weight and appearance.

Body shaming creates a range of problems for targeted individuals: diminished self-esteem, distorted body image, and elevated risk of eating disorders. While obesity brings its own health risks to an individual, body shaming can be just as detrimental, especially among impressionable teens and adolescents who struggle with self-esteem and confidence.

Social media can be a powerful tool to reinforce shame. Social media users may believe that in order to be relevant or to “influence,” they need to craft an image of themselves that is interesting and unique. Not only that, but they need to be more interesting and unique than the next person. For instance, if you can’t seem to grow a following or your photo doesn’t get as many “likes” as someone else’s, it’s easy to feel as though there must be something wrong with you. And if you post something on social media that violates a social norm (intentionally or otherwise), you’re at risk of public humiliation.

What’s more, social media can induce shame when we take online content at face value. It’s easy to forget that the photo shoot was staged, the images were Photoshopped, and the content was cleverly crafted. We can fall victim to feeling like our life is lackluster compared to what we see online. If comparison is the thief of joy, then social media is driving the getaway car.

The risks to your emotional health are real. A growing body of research has found that while social media can have some benefits to users, for many people the risks of harm to their psychological wellbeing are significant.

Shame is an enemy that must be dealt with head on. It won’t go away by avoiding it. Hiding from shame with procrastination or trying to outrun it with “driving and striving” will not bring freedom from its stranglehold on your life. It must be defeated.

When we have internal wounds that are painful to face, the easiest thing to do is avoid them and fill our heads and days with “the tyranny of the urgent.” The problem is those negative emotions—such as shame—just sit there in the background. This means shame has been covered over or pushed to the side by busyness—but it hasn’t been dealt with. It’s lurking in the shadows, waiting to reappear when the frenetic activity stops.

If you struggle with shame and it has become a deep-rooted issue, many people benefit tremendously from the guidance and insights of a qualified therapist or counselor. Your steps towards healing may need to take place with a professional who can assist you and provide a place of safety to explore the origins of your shame.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we use a form of talk therapy called dialectical behavioral therapy, which is a clear and cogent process for working through strong emotions and shifting them from harmful to helpful. If you would like to speak with a professional to see what a personalized treatment program can look like for you, please contact us at 1-888-771-5166. I want to encourage you that a sign of emotional health is the willingness to access professional resources in times of need. There is HOPE.