Stress And Shame – Part 2: The Neuroscience of Stress and Shame

Stress can prevent you from being able to think clearly, which creates a vicious circle. Breaking the cycle is the key to overcoming life-limiting shame and stress.

To find an answer, we must first go back in time to an age before civilisation, before humans even existed. Modern humans have been around for approximately 70,000 years and our ancestors walked the Earth for millions of years before that. We evolved over tens of thousands of years to live in a world full of sabre-toothed tigers, woolly mammoths and other dangers. Modern civilisation and the challenges that accompany it (e.g. job insecurity, workplace bullying, road traffic accidents, etc) are only hundreds or even tens of years old. Evolution simply hasn’t caught up yet. We find ourselves reacting to perceived threats in ways that evolved to help us survive in more primitive times.

There are five strategies that we and all other mammals have developed for interacting with each other and the outside world, as follows:

Five Levels Of Survival

1 – Social Engagement

At this level, the body is relaxed and the brain is fully functioning. You feel at ease, happy, aware of your surroundings, curious, able to engage in social interactions without difficulty.

For example: Think of an occasion when you weren’t troubled by any worries, you were with people you like and you found the conversation flowing easily. Life seemed manageable and your stress levels were pretty much zero. That’s because your body and mind were functioning in harmony as a single unit and you were fully socially engaged.

2 – Fight

At this level, you are responding to a perceived threat by becoming reading yourself to defend yourself. Your heart rate increases, your attention focuses on the threat, you body releases adrenaline (causes physiological arousal), norepinephrine (similar function to adrenaline) and cortisol (the so-called “stress” hormone), your muscles tighten, your body may instinctively move to protect you (e.g. turning your stomach away from the threat, raising your arms to protect your face, etc). You prepare to attack or defend. Most importantly, your rational, thinking brain goes “offline” when you go into “fight” mode. This is what makes it hard for people to think clearly when they get stressed, especially at crucial moments when they really need to think clearly, as I described in the previous article. There is an evolutionary reason why your rational mind goes offline when you enter fight mode – had you been born in the stone age, your “fight” mode would have been in response to an attack by a predator (sabre-toothed tiger, hungry bear, etc) and you simply can’t think quickly enough to work out how to defend against a predator before the predator eats you for lunch. Your only option for survival is to react rapidly and instinctively. The survival circuits in your brain therefore switch off, or reduce the functioning of your rational brain so that your instincts can take over.

For example: Think of when something sudden and unexpected happened, such as an instect flying into your face. Remember how you reacted. Did you find yourself swatting the insect away, moving your face to the side, without even thinking about it? That’s because your mind and body had moved quickly to “fight” mode. It’s the same reaction that makes you flinch and raise your hands in defence when you think someone is about to hit you – you don’t think about it, you just instinctively do it.

3 – Flight

At this level, the instinctive part of your brain has gauged that the threat you face cannot be fought off. Your body then reacts to move you away from the danger.

For example: Remember when a wasp or hornet flew into your face. Or remember when the playground bullies ganged up on you. What did you do? If you ran away, that was because your mind and body had instinctively entered “flight” mode – you run away without thinking very much about it.

4 – Freeze

At this level, your instincts tell you that you can’t fight or outrun the threat, so you literally become ‘frozen with fear’. It’s a survival method used by animals hoping to go unnoticed by a predator.

For example: Remember when you were in a house alone at night, you woke up and thought you heard a creak, rustle, bonk (etc) somewhere in the room (which was probably just something falling off a shelf, or the central heating switching on, etc). Or has there been a time when you were half-awake in the night and mistook your dressing gown hanging on its peg for a 9ft tall monster – and suddenly you were wide? (As has happened to me!) Did you find yourself completely frozen, too terrified to move? That’s because you had instinctively gone into “freeze” mode.

5 – Flop

This level is the last line of defence against a perceived threat. Your mind and body shut down to prepare for the worst. When an animal is caught by a predator, they often go into “flop” mode because there’s nothing else to be done, they are instinctively preparing for the end.

For example: When someone receives terrible news, they may go weak at the knees, or even collapse completely. That’s because their body and mind instinctively start shutting down because the threat seems completely overwhelming.

Putting It All Together

It is worth noting that the most helpful thing you can do for someone who has flopped, is simply to be with them, let them know you are there, hold their hand. You don’t have to do anything, other than be a calm, supportive presence. Through a process known as co-bodying, you can help them to self-regulate – that is to return up the level scale from 5 (flop) back to 1 (social engagement). This is a natural process which often happens outside conscious awareness.

So how does the natural process of recovery from a survival strategy happen? To explain, I’ve created the following fictitious example in which a cyclist (Richard) has just hit a pothole at speed and has been thrown from his bike:

What’s Happening

Feelings & Behaviour

Survival Level(s)

Richard is lying in the road, confused, semi-conscious. He’s about to pass out even though he didn’t hit his head. Pedestrians and drivers have stopped to help him.

Numbness, blankness, mind not really present.


An ambulance arrives and paramedics take over and talk to him.

Dazed, confused, becoming aware of surroundings. Not able to move.


Richard starts shouting, flailing around and kicking.

Panic, terror, confusion, trying to get up and get away.


Richard begins to calm down, he starts trembling and becomes tearful. He’s talking coherently to the paramedics, asking them to phone his wife as they get him into the ambulance. They are talking to him calmly and supportively, reassuring him that he’s going to be OK, contacting his wife so he can talk to her.

Release of emotions, calming down, mind and body making sense of what’s happened, Richard slowly realises that the danger has passed and he is safe.

Social Engagement.

In the above example, we see the normal course of events in response to a threat. Notice in particular that Richard’s gradual process of regaining his senses is not a cognitive process – it happens naturally and instinctively. That’s important to remember as we look at the next example featuring Tom, an office worker. His natural survival mechanism habitually gets “stuck” in survival mode, thereby preventing him from engaging socially:

What’s Happening

Feelings & Behaviour

Survival Level(s)

Tom is getting ready to go to work. His job is demanding and he feels tired all the time.

Just as he does every morning: he sits and eats breakfast in silence with his leg bouncing nervously up and down. He ignores his family while his exhausted brain picks through all the things he’s got to do that day.


Tom leaves for work without saying goodbye and by the time he arrives at his desk he’s realised that he has more things to do than he has time for.

His mind starts to race as he thinks about his demanding boss. He can’t think straight. He stares at the computer and feels completely inert, helpless.


Tom’s boss notices that he is looking worried, so she comes over to ask how he is, how he’s getting on whether he needs any help.

Tom only half-hears what his boss is saying. He thinks she’s criticising him. He instinctively feels the need to defend himself. Without looking at her he tells her that he’s fine, just a bit tired and he’s got it all under control.

Lower edge of Social Engagement, but mostly Fight/Flight.

Tom switches on his computer and gets started on the first task. He works hurriedly, without taking any breaks.

Tom is making a lot of mistakes. He’s not thinking clearly about the jobs, he just wants to get them all done so he can calm down.

Moving between Fight/Flight and Social Engagement throughout the day.

Notice that Tom has got “stuck” in Fight/Flight – his natural tendency to move towards social engagement is hampered. So what’s happening for Tom? Why is he getting stuck in Flight/Flight? And what are the long-term implications? Let’s look at each of these questions individually:

Question 1: What’s Happing For Tom? Answer: Tom inaccurately believes his boss to be critical of him, therefore he sees her as a threat. His instinctive reaction to threat is to move from social engagement to a fight/flight response. The perceived threat (his boss) is therefore in his awareness, whereas his reaction is outside his awareness. That has significant implications for the ways in which Tom can help himself, as we shall see in the next article.

Question 2: Why Is Tom Getting Stuck In Fight/Flight? Answer: Tom’s survival strategies have evolved to keep him safe from a danger that goes away quickly. E.g. once you’ve escaped from a sabre-toothed tiger it is no longer around and so you can relax. In Tom’s case, his perceived threat of his boss’s criticism doesn’t go away – so his mind and body continue to instinctively put him into “fight” mode and keep his social engagement capabilities greatly reduced. That’s why he has trouble interacting with his boss.

Question 3: What Are The Long-Term Implications For Tom? Answer: There are several long term implications. His health is likely to suffer because his body will be producing stress hormones all the time, leading to what’s called “adrenal exhaustion”, which is characterised by low mood, lethargy and insomnia. This will reinforce Tom’s stuckness in flight/flight – he has progressively less and less energy to drag himself through the day, so he sees work as more and more overwhelming and, therefore, more and more threatening. He has become locked in a vicious circle of stress that begets stress. Because Tom’s performance is deteriorating, he is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: his stress stems from the fact that he fears criticism by his boss. Initially, that fear was unfounded, but as his performance drops so he finds himself increasingly likely to be on the receiving end of criticism from those above him. Finally, Tom is silently ashamed of himself. He is ashamed that his performance is not good. He is ashamed that he isn’t being the husband and father he believes he should be. He feels ashamed and inferior when he sees others achieving success with apparently effortless ease, while he struggles.

Of course, the obvious answer to Tom’s problem is simply that he should stop believing that his boss is critical of him. I am not so naïve as to believe that the solution really is that simple. There are likely to be other complicating factors. Perhaps Tom’s boss is critical sometimes; after all she’s only human too. Perhaps Tom’s boss reminds him of someone from his past who was extremely critical of him. Perhaps Tom is in the wrong job. There are many possibilities and human beings are far more complex than simple machines. When things go wrong, we cannot simply be “fixed”. Nevertheless, a universal aspect of the solution to many psychological problems lies in finding ways by which we can fully engage our Social Engagement Systems. The topic of the third article in the Stress And Shame series will be how you can help yourself to activate your Social Engagement System, thereby reducing your stress and helping you to resolve long-lasting shame.

19th July 2016