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Shame and its impact on health

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We’ve all felt shame in some form in our lifetime—whether you were teased for wearing a certain swimsuit or mispronouncing a word. Shame is uncomfortable and it sits in the pit of our stomach—it makes us feel small and most of the time, invisible.

Shame arises from typically breaking some social norm. It forces our view inward and takes over our personal thoughts. Shame can be a reflection of our body, how we feel, and ourselves as a whole. This can stem from personal feelings like not being good enough, not being a certain weight, or not feeling good in that dress you just ordered that you were so excited about. In fact, “we are each our own worst critic,” says Ellen Hendriksen, a clinical psychologist, regular contributor to Scientific American and host of the award-winning podcast The Savvy Psychologist. Alongside any personal comments we make about ourselves—outsider’s comments can be just as hurtful and shameful. People’s comments can further tear you down—picking at your clothes, how you look, what you eat, and even a weight-bias—because you weigh more, you must be unhealthy. Shame—both how we feel about ourselves and the shame people direct at us—can have a huge impact on our personal health. And, it can play a role in not only your short-term health but your long-term physical health as well. Here’s how.

Shame and health

In healthcare, shaming because of the experience of having excess weight or obesity happens to more than three out of five adults according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal. Even more alarming, “it’s estimated that two in five Americans with a higher than “normal” BMI have internalized weight bias,” according to Angela Alberga, an assistant professor in the department of health, kinesiology and applied physiology at Concordia University. Because of this, shame leads to exercise avoidance, or to avoiding doctors' visits and ultimately harming health because of untreated conditions.

Chronic shame, also known as long-term feelings of shame, can have an effect on your immune system, cardiovascular system, and even your mental health. Shame often comes with an increased amount of negative comparison and inferiority—feelings that lead to having the most harmful inner voice. A 2017 study performed with 2,236 participants, who suffered from obesity, found that they were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety—94% reported that they’d suffered from depression within the past week, and 87% from anxiety during that same time. Clearly, being self-critical and continually speaking to ourselves can have a detrimental impact on our physical and emotional well-being.

Similar to the fight or flight response, the biological response to chronic shame can lead to the release of cortisol and pro-inflammatory cytokines (PIC). These chronic levels of cortisol and PIC begin to put strain on the body, which can lead to a variety of conditions including but not limited to weight gain, heart disease, hardening of arteries, and lowered immune function (Dolezal & Lyons, 2017).

Raising the awareness of shame, how common it is, and its impact on the body are important. But also focusing on how to overcome these feelings and have compassion for ourselves is critical. Here are some tips from Found coaches to help work through these feelings and take control of your personal health journey! Let’s dive in.

Overcoming shame

1. Add affirmations to your daily routine.

An affirmation is like a mental pushup, do it enough times and your mind will begin to grow positively. When you change the way you talk to yourself, you begin to feel happier and healthier. Positive thoughts lead to positive actions which lead to, you guessed it, positive results. When using affirmations, the key phrase is “I am.” Speak as if you already believe these feelings and put them into action. Start repeating your affirmations every morning while you wash your face or on your drive to work. Here are a few affirmations you can start practicing.

  • I am in the process of becoming the healthiest version of myself.

  • I am healthy and happy.

  • I am right where I should be.


2. Make a list of 3 things you are grateful for.

Gratitude may impact your day in a way you never thought possible. Taking five to ten minutes each morning to write, type, or say out loud the things you are grateful for can and will enhance positive feelings. You’ll remember all of the things you do have, and it’ll help adjust feelings of inadequacy. There’s no right or wrong rules or way when listing what you’re grateful for. We’ve thought of a couple to help you begin.

  • I am grateful for the roof above my head.

  • I am grateful for my body that carries me day in and day out.

  • I am grateful for my family, who love and support me.

  • I am grateful for the way I show up for myself.


3. Use positive self-talk.

In moments of shame or feelings of not being good enough, you tend to be hard on yourself, focus on the negative, and can even be hurtful to yourself. When you start doing this, ask yourself how you would respond and treat your friend or child-self. Picture this: your friend or child-self is standing or sitting in front of you, asking for advice or needing a shoulder to cry on when they’re feeling lost or not their best. What would you say and how would you act? You would lift them up, tell them all of the good things they’re doing, and remind them it’s going to be okay.

So, if you’re having a bad day, take a moment to give yourself some grace and remind yourself tomorrow is a new day. Remember you’re human. Be kind with your words, raise yourself up, and allow yourself some grace—just how you would give to someone you love.


4. Participate in self-compassion meditations or exercises.

Practicing self-compassion allows you to be kind and understanding of yourself when you’re experiencing pain or suffering. Dr. Kristina Neff offers a variety of self-compassion exercises like breathing positively, journal prompts, and short self-kindness guided meditations. Find a few of Dr. Neff’s offerings below:

To find more of Dr. Kristina Neff’s, Self-Compassion Guided Practices and Exercises, go to her website! Enjoy and sulk in some self-love.


5. Visualize your thoughts and feelings.

Visualizations are a way to think about and see things you want to accomplish, and more specifically how you feel doing them. Visualization also allows you to focus on shifting feelings and moving through them. To practice this, you’ll sit down, close your eyes, and start to picture your happy place. Here's a visualization example to help: you’re sitting on your favorite, beautiful, 70 degree beach. You feel the warm sun on your back and the smooth sand under your toes. You breathe in and take a big deep breath out—letting go of any care, worry, or anything you’re holding on to. You breathe in the salty air and with it, the calm, peaceful serenity of your surroundings. You breathe out the negative feelings and breathe in the positive feelings. Then, open your eyes, and let the positive feelings envelope you.

Using an example like this and finding your “happy place” is a powerful tool to see the goals you want to achieve or to simply relax when your mind may be going a mile-a-minute and you’re spiraling. It’ll give you a chance to re-center. Use these tips to help your process:

  • Cultivate calmness - think of your most calming place. Even if you haven’t ever been before, imagine the feelings you have or had there, and let go of all other worries.

  • Create success - envision yourself accomplishing the goal. What do you feel when you accomplish it? Proud or maybe even, powerful.

  • Push-away negative thoughts - put your worries, sadness, and anger in a box, then lock it and throw away the key. Allow yourself to make room for any new positive thoughts.


6. Read literature and watch videos around shame.

Here’s a quick collection of some books, videos, meditations, and articles on shame, guilt, and the impact it can have on health.

Putting in the work to address these feelings now can lead to improving any negative physical and mental health effects later. Recognize that shame is a feeling that can be moved out of our body. Letting go and letting in acceptance, self-compassion, and self-love. Remember shame doesn't own who you are, it is simply a feeling. You are strong, capable, and worthy of everything and more.

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