Trigger warning – themes around shame, ruminating thoughts, chronic pain, childhood and domestic abuse.
Default mode network –
As humans we all have a built-in negativity bias and it’s what’s kept us alive for millions of years.
We have an automatic system in the brain that kicks in-between tasks which causes us to ruminate on the bad and override the good, this is known as the default mode network.
Within the default mode network is the posterior cingulate cortex and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, which are responsible for ruminating thoughts.
“what’s wrong with me?”, “what’s do they think of me?”
and thinking about what’s wrong with others.
Ruminating thoughts from the default mode network is what’s known as ‘neurotypical’ functioning which means a standard brain mechanism amongst healthy adults.
Rumination when we’re feeling stressed is normal and can be difficult to deal with from time to time.
Some people can learn to distance themselves from these thoughts through mindfulness practice and focus on the present moment and task at hand.
Shame and the brain –
Shame is not to be confused with guilt. In a nutshell, shame is a feeling that you are inherently wrong, bad or defective and may not be related to a specific event. Guilt is the feeling you feel when you actually did something that your perceived to be morally wrong. Please see my post on guilt vs shame for more information about the difference.
When a person has unresolved shame from a past or current life event, it can be difficult to regulate ruminating thoughts from the default mode network in the brain.
In the workplace it can manifest as:
being spaced out (dissociation)
and change in mood
This is because this area of the brain that is consumed with rumination is also responsible for emotional formation, processing, learning and memory.
So it’s no wonder stress and unresolved emotional issues can cause us to have hazy thoughts!
A word on physcial pain –
Another area of the brain that activates when a person is carrying shame is the pain system, which is the anterior cingulate cortex and he anterior insula. So, some people actually feel physically shame in the body, which could manifest into chronic pain.
So, not only does shame impact the productivity of a person in day-to-day tasks but it could also increase the likelihood of sickness leave from work due to chronic pain.
Shame and the workplace –
It’s estimated that 8.5 million adults have suffered a form of childhood abuse in the UK, and 2.3 million adults have experience domestic abuse in the last year alone, both major factors for developing unhealthy shame (Domestic Abuse in England and Wales Overview, 2021; National Association for People Abused in Childhood, 2021).
And with mental health being one of the top reasons that people call in sick, the likelihood of shame effecting the workplace is high (The Mental Health Foundation, 2021).
For a productive workforce, it is in an employer’s best interests to ensure staff have the right support with effective psychological interventions to reduce the risk of health and wellbeing effecting the performance of staff.
What to do about it –
Psychologists and have found that when working with a person who carries shame, emotional intelligence training can help the person to regulate the overactive negativity bias (rumination).
Mind-body exercises included in emotional intelligence training can help a person increase interoception, proprioception and exteroception.
Interoception basically means to create a deeper connection with the body and its functions. Try to simply notice, not change, your breathing or any other internal sensations of the body.
Proprioception is the ability to sense the body in spac. Try to notice your movements and focus on the journey rather than the destination
Exteroception is the ability to sense the external world. Try using your five senses to explore the room that you’re in.
Finally, compassionate-focused exercises are important to regulate the negativity bias, which is sometimes known as the ‘inner critic’.
Always speak with your GP or healthcare provider about any changes in mood, intrusive thoughts or onset of pain. For more support on chronic pain, please see the British Pain Society https://www.britishpainsociety.org/people-with-pain/
See Mind for more information on mental health https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/your-stories/dealing-with-intrusive-thoughts/
Boersma, K., Håkanson, A., Salomonsson, E., & Johansson, I. (2015). Compassion focused therapy to counteract shame, self-criticism and isolation. A replicated single case experimental study for individuals with social anxiety. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 45(2), 89-98.
Domestic Abuse in England and Wales Overview – Office for National Statistics. (2021). Retrieved 9 March 2021, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/domesticabuseinenglandandwalesoverview/november2020
Hallman, D. M., Holtermann, A., Björklund, M., Gupta, N., & Rasmussen, C. D. N. (2019). Sick leave due to musculoskeletal pain: determinants of distinct trajectories over 1 year. International archives of occupational and environmental health, 92(8), 1099-1108.
Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015). Fear and the defense cascade: clinical implications and management. Harvard review of psychiatry.
National Association for People Abused in Childhood – Key Facts and Figures (2021). Retrieved 9th March 2021, from https://napac.org.uk/key-facts-figures/
Oginska-Bulik, N. (2005). Emotional intelligence in the workplace: Exploring its effects on occupational stress and health outcomes in human service workers. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health, 18(2), 167-175.
Tammi R A Kral, Ted Imhoff-Smith, Douglas C Dean, III, Dan Grupe, Nagesh Adluru, Elena Patsenko, Jeanette A Mumford, Robin Goldman, Melissa A Rosenkranz, Richard J Davidson, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction-related changes in posterior cingulate resting brain connectivity, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, Volume 14, Issue 7, July 2019, Pages 777–787, https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsz050
The Mental Health Foundation – Mental Health Statistics: Mental Health at Work (2021).
Retreieved 9th March 2021, from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-mental-health-work
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving. Azure Coyote.