Trauma and the Shame Spiral

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can cause a wide range of adverse emotions such as fear, anger, anxiety, and sadness. These emotions are common, natural responses to a traumatic experience. As time passes, these feelings will often gradually diminish as the survivor heals. However, shame is one emotion that tends to emerge gradually after the traumatic event, often impeding the recovery journey. 

Understanding Shame 

Shame is often intimately linked with the experience of trauma. When a person survives a deeply distressing event, they may internalize a sense of guilt, self-blame, or embarrassment, which can lead to feelings of shame. 

This emotional response can intensify over time and hinder the healing process. Shame can manifest as a belief that the trauma was somehow their fault or that they are fundamentally flawed as a result. Overcoming shame is an important aspect of trauma recovery, as it involves recognizing that the responsibility for the traumatic event lies with the perpetrator and not the survivor. By addressing and processing feelings of shame, individuals can work towards healing and rebuilding their sense of self-worth and resilience.

The Difference between Shame and Guilt 

Distinguishing between shame and guilt is important, as they have different effects on behavior. Shame is a self-conscious emotion tied to negative self-evaluation, while guilt is linked to evaluating a specific behavior negatively. Guilt can be constructive, motivating actions like making amends, apologizing, and correcting behavior. This can alleviate feelings of guilt and promote self-positivity. However, shame is often unhelpful, leading to self-punishment, isolation, and intensified shame. Self-harm and isolation do little to alleviate shame in the long run. Recognizing the difference between shame and guilt can help individuals navigate their emotions more effectively in order to pursue healthier paths of healing and self-acceptance.

The Shame Spiral 

Trauma can often trigger a shame spiral, which is a cycle of escalating shame and self-blame that can be difficult to disrupt. When someone experiences a traumatic event, they may feel a deep sense of shame and believe that they are somehow to blame or that they failed to prevent or cope with the situation adequately. This initial seed of shame can grow and intensify over time, leading to a spiral of negative self-perception and self-judgment. Because shame is linked to negative evaluation of the self, as opposed to an individual behavior, there is rarely an opportunity to address or correct the root of the issue, causing the spiral of shame to continue.

The shame spiral can perpetuate feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and self-disgust, further hindering the healing process. It can also impact relationships, as individuals may isolate themselves, withdraw from support systems, or struggle to trust others due to feelings of unworthiness.1

In order to break free from the shame spiral, survivors need to recognize that shame is a common response to trauma, but it is not deserved or justified. It involves challenging the distorted beliefs and negative self-talk associated with shame and replacing them with self-compassion, self-acceptance, and empathy. Seeking therapy or support from trusted individuals can provide a safe space to explore and address these feelings, allowing for healing, growth, and resilience in the aftermath of trauma.

Coping Strategies

There are strategies for regaining control of a shame spiral and preventing it from happening in the first place.

Recognize and Acknowledge Shame

It is common to experience the drop in energy, mood, self-esteem, and comfort associated with a shame spiral without actually recognizing the causal feeling of shame. The mind can begin to race with feelings of inadequacy, discomfort, anxiety, and distress. Dedicating time to identifying the physical and/or psychological processes you experience when shame begins to take hold is essential for interrupting the shame cycle. Start by acknowledging the feelings of shame by naming and accepting them without judgment while recognizing that shame often arises from the belief that we are inadequate or not good enough. Once the shame has been recognized and accepted, it is an opportunity to make use of coping mechanisms you have developed, support networks, grounding techniques, or self-compassion. Refuse to let shame have power over you, and remind yourself that you deserve love and respect.

Connect with Others

Shame can cause people to want to isolate themselves, as they begin to feel afraid, uncomfortable, and distressed. Fighting this urge by reaching out to people whom you trust and value can help interrupt the spiral. This might be achieved through finding support groups of people who have experienced trauma and understand your experiences. When you feel understood, valued, seen, and accepted, it becomes easier to show yourself compassion and grace. 


Developing a method for breaking the cycle can be incredibly helpful. This might be an internal dialogue, reminding yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that feeling shame has no relation to your worth. For others, a physical action can help, like shaking, clapping your hands, or making an abrupt noise. Instead of dwelling on failures, focus on your successes and the progress you’ve made. Thought-stopping is a method based in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that has been found to work for some people and not for others. The human experience is deeply personal, and healing from trauma is a process of finding the strategies and processes that work for you. 

Embracing Acceptance

While some therapists recommend though-stopping, other experts suggest that acceptance is a more effective way of dealing with unwanted thoughts and negative emotions such as shame. Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), a newer form of therapy, centers on this very concept.

To incorporate acceptance into your life and handle unwanted thoughts, consider the following approach:

  1. Recognize the thought: Start by identifying the feeling of shame without judgment. This means without self-blame, frustration, or anger.
  2. Remind yourself that it’s just a thought: Experiencing shame is a normal part of healing from a traumatic experience. It’s essential to recognize and remember that these thoughts hold no power to harm you.
  3. Don’t attempt to avoid or suppress the thought: Visualize the thought entering your mind and visualize it floating away like a balloon. Instead of trying to hold onto or engage with the thought, allow it to pass by without disturbance.
  4. Return to what you were doing: Refrain from allowing the thought to interfere with your ongoing tasks. Attempting to forcefully stop the thought can be draining, but acceptance empowers you to focus on your necessary activities, even in the presence of unwanted thoughts.
  5. Practice consistently: Through regular practice and persistence, acceptance can get easier.

Identify Shame Triggers

Recognizing your shame triggers is crucial to intercepting the shame spiral before it takes hold. Triggers could be linked to specific events, interpersonal dynamics, or a general sense of overwhelm. Once triggers have been identified, you can then develop a plan to address them. Seeking professional help to manage underlying characteristics or symptoms can also be beneficial.


[1] Saraiya, T., & Lopez-Castro, T. (2016). Ashamed and Afraid: A Scoping Review of the Role of Shame in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Journal of clinical medicine, 5(11), 94.

[2] Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Reconsidering the Differences Between Shame and Guilt. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 14(3), 710-733.

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