Understanding Trauma and the Shame Spiral

Trauma and shame are often intimately linked. A traumatic experience can cause a range of negative emotions, particularly shame. Similarly, shame can result in trauma when a person is made to feel embarrassment, worthlessness, humiliation or dehumanisation.

Trauma is closely linked to shame due to the nature of the experiences and their impact on an individual’s sense of self and identity. When a person experiences a traumatic event, especially if it involves abuse, violation, or humiliation, they may feel a profound sense of powerlessness and vulnerability. These traumatic experiences can shatter a person’s perception of safety, trust, and control over their life.

Shame can arise from the belief that you are fundamentally flawed, unworthy, or deserving of the trauma you experienced. Victims often internalise the blame, feeling responsible for what happened or believing they could have prevented it. This self-blame can lead to a pervasive feeling of shame 1. Shame can also create barriers to seeking help and support from others leading to isolation and further emotional distress.

Shame and Trauma Intertwined

When shame becomes intertwined with traumatic experiences, it can intensify the emotional impact and make the trauma more difficult to cope with. The shame may lead the individual to blame themselves for the traumatic event, believing they deserved it or were somehow responsible for it happening. This self-blame can perpetuate feelings of helplessness, guilt, and self-loathing, deepening the trauma’s psychological wounds.

Shaming in various forms can cause trauma as it deeply affects an individual’s self-worth and emotional well-being. Emotional abuse, verbal abuse, public humiliation, body shaming, victim blaming, cultural or social shaming, parental shaming, and sexual shaming are all examples of shaming that can lead to lasting emotional scars. These experiences undermine a person’s sense of identity and dignity, causing significant harm to their mental health and overall well-being. Recognizing and addressing the harmful effects of shaming is essential in preventing and healing from trauma caused by these experiences.

What is a Shame Spiral?

A shame spiral causes escalating feelings of shame and self-blame. It occurs when one feels a deep sense of shame and believes they are at fault for something or have failed in some way. This initial feeling of shame can intensify over time, leading to a spiral of negative self-perception and self-judgement. Those caught in a shame spiral may constantly dwell on their perceived shortcomings and mistakes, leading to feelings of worthlessness, inadequacy, and self-loathing. This negative self-talk and self-criticism can further fuel the shame spiral, making it challenging to break free from this cycle of self-blame and negative emotions.

Overcoming Shame in Trauma Recovery

Understanding and addressing shame is a vital aspect of the trauma recovery process, as it can significantly hinder healing and progress.

The first step in overcoming shame is acknowledging its presence, and understanding how it affects you as an individual. Shame can be easily hidden, even from the person experiencing it. Survivors may bury their shame as a defence mechanism, avoiding the pain it brings, and are hesitant to confront the pain and negative emotions that accompany it. Recognizing shame as a legitimate emotion that stems from the trauma is crucial to start the healing process.

Shame can affect us all differently, shame research has identified four common responses to shame as; withdrawal,attack self, avoidance and attack others 2. Identifying your most frequent responses to feelings of shame can help with the recovery process, making it easier to recognise when shame is affecting mood and behaviour.


This response involves viewing shame as valid and withdrawing in an attempt to minimise exposure to it. People who withdraw may isolate themselves, run away, draw into themselves, and cut off connections. While negative emotions and thoughts are associated with this response, the individual experiencing shame may not explicitly recognize them as shame.

Attack Self

This response also involves seeing shame as valid, but instead of withdrawing, individuals turn their anger inward. This can lead to self-criticism, self-deprecation, and contempt towards oneself.


Avoidance entails denying the shame’s message and the negative experience of self. Unlike withdrawal, where the shame messages are accepted, avoidance focuses on diverting attention and using distraction techniques to generate neutral or positive feelings. People using this response are motivated to minimise the conscious experience of shame.

Attack Others

This response involves reducing others’ worth to boost one’s own self-esteem. People experiencing feelings of shame may blame or put down others to alleviate their own negative feelings.

Strategies for Overcoming Shame

Therapeutic support plays a crucial role in addressing shame. Trauma-informed therapists can create a safe space for survivors to open up about their feelings of shame, helping them understand its origins and challenging distorted beliefs. By sharing their experiences, survivors often find that shame loses some of its power over them, as they realise they are not alone in their struggles.

Reframing the narrative is another essential step. Survivors can work on transforming the self-blame narrative into a more compassionate and understanding one. This process involves recognizing that they were not responsible for the traumatic event and that their reactions and emotions are natural responses to an abnormal situation.

Building a support network is invaluable in the trauma recovery process and can be particularly helpful in overcoming shame. Connecting with other trauma survivors who have experienced similar feelings of shame can provide a sense of validation and empathy. Peer support groups or online forums can be helpful in fostering a sense of community and reducing the isolation that shame often brings.

Cultivating self-compassion is also vital in overcoming shame. By treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer a friend in similar circumstances, you can gradually challenge and replace the self-destructive patterns caused by shame.

If you are struggling with the effects of shame and trauma, there is help available. The urge to hide from shame and withdraw might seem like the safest and most effective approach, but will not deal with the root of the issue and provide effective relief in the long term. Reaching out and seeking professional help is the first step in interrupting the cycle of shame and reclaiming control.


  1.  MacGinley, Breckenridge, J., & Mowll, J. (2019). A scoping review of adult survivors’ experiences of shame following sexual abuse in childhood. Health & Social Care in the Community, 27(5), 1135–1146. https://doi.org/10.1111/hsc.12771
  2.  Codrington. (2017). Trauma, Dissociation, and Chronic Shame – Reflections for Couple and Family Practice: An Interview with Kathy Steele. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy, 38(4), 669–679. https://doi.org/10.1002/anzf.1275