Shame and the Immune System

Healthcare providers are finally becoming savvy (albeit quite slowly) to the absolute direct connection between emotions and physical body health. That said, let’s take a brief look at how the feeling of shame causes inflammation and ultimately (without stepping in to stop that inflammation) creating chronic disease such as autoimmune disorders, heart disease, and cancers, just to name a few. 

The word shame has been defined as not feeling like you “made a mistake”, but that you actually “are a mistake”. Perhaps you’d like to read that again. Today we know that shame and feelings like it cause the body to break down and in this blog I’ll explain why I call it the “not enough disease”.

I bet you can recall the last time you ever experienced shame. They can make quite an imprint in our memories and may even cause a physiological reaction when we think about them if we haven’t looked at them in square in the face. And if you’re reading this article, there may be many events that you can recall in your life in which you felt shame. Experiencing enough shame can “grow” on you. Believe it or not people can become unconsciously addicted to shame and to the fear associated with it in order to “feel alive”. It’s these people who can create chaos in their lives in order for their adrenals to pump out cortisol and adrenaline when they “need to feel”. People will do this until they wake up and no longer want to feel the pain that shame causes them emotionally.

I am not using this blog to explain the psychology of why someone live in shame but instead, explaining how the body responds to feelings like shame, self reproach, humiliation, or “not enoughness”.

As soon as a person feels “not enough”, their adrenals will release a certain amount of cortisol. A small amount of cortisol is always released with stress as cortisol actually gets released to fight inflammation (like when we’re ill) but too much causes inflammation. It can be at this point inside the immune system that the white blood cells get the message that they need to continue to attack the body, hence an autoimmune disorder can begin. If so many white blood cells begin attacking a gland, antibodies will begin forming around that gland in protection because the immune system is basically telling it that there is an infection but there is none the only thing that is really there is inflammation. This is where I would like to ask, “Which came first-the chicken or the egg?”

Since cortisol is a fatty substance it actually gets released into the bloodstream and can build up into heart disease. Could a heart attack come from a “broken heart”? Absolutely. If a person does not have a strong sense of who they are, is not gentle with themselves and accepts their “humanness”, is unable to love themselves. Those of us who do love ourselves can be free to be ourselves, therefore cultivating joy and truth. 

So, take the codependent whose motivation is to seek out approval from people, places, and things outside themselves (plastic surgery, cars, even using the name of the college as a boost of esteem)   so they can feel better about themselves. This creates a lot of shame because without these outside factors, they don’t feel a true sense of self worth because that comes from inside themselves. So, instead, they will continue searching for their worth outside themselves. This in turn, creates a “shame hit” ; when the emotion of shame comes along, the adrenals will pump out cortisol and adrenaline (depending upon the situation) each time the person realizes they are embarrassed, humiliated, and not good enough. 

Unless this person learns how to truly love themselves, their body actually gets addicted to the pumping out of cortisol and adrenaline because these are “fight/flight” hormones that give them a jolt of aliveness and even though the person doesn’t like how it feels, it’s a familiar feeling and it’s not easy to create new neural pathways inside the brain that are just waiting there to be used. This is hard work. This is not an easy fix. It takes a long time to create change in the brain but it can be done and is the most rewarding work anyone will ever do. 

So cortisol builds inside the cardiovascular system as well as inside brain tissue (my guess is that the more unhappy a person is the more plaque they have in their brains which is the cause of alzheimers). This inflammation creates heat in the body (in-flamed) and with that increase in temperature the immune system reacts immediately in ways it would not normally do if the person was calm.  When inflammation builds up, disease forms and glands and organs must work in different ways attempting to keep the body in balance. 

One way to lessen cortisol from building up is to make sure you’re dealing with your feelings as they arise for you. Emotions live in your body; not your head, and there are ways to process them so they come, you have a visit with them, then let them go. Feelings are our compass. They are here for a reason and that reason is to let you know what actions to take, if any. They are not to be feared. They are a part of you that will never go away.