Shame and PTSD: A Destructive Pair of Emotions

It may seem that shame and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) are very separate issues, but the two are very closely linked. Together, they can be very powerful and destructive forces that impact every aspect of our lives, from our careers, our relationships and our mental and physical health.

Shame vs. Guilt: What’s the Difference?

Shame is a painful, devastating emotion that involves feelings of powerlessness and worthlessness. A person who experiences severe shame, also known as toxic shame, experiences self-contempt, disgust, and a belief of being fundamentally bad and unworthy of love, acceptance or belonging.

Guilt, on the other hand, is an unpleasant but less powerful emotion that emerges when a person does something they know is wrong. Guilt, which typically involves feelings of remorse and regret, can be helpful when it teaches us to be better people, either through corrective actions, apologizing or making amends.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a term often reserved for combat veterans, people who live in war zones and survivors of terrorism. However, PTSD can affect children and adults who have experienced or witnessed any type of trauma, including physical or sexual assault, natural disasters, accidents, or the death of a loved one. It can cause severe anxiety, flashbacks, terrifying nightmares, and an inability to stop thinking about the event.

Shame and PTSD: The Connection

Shame and PTSD often involve deep feelings of regret and responsibility, severe guilt for surviving when others didn’t, or shame for experiencing a sense of relief or elation for surviving the trauma.

Humans are hard-wired to take protective action when threatened. This survival instinct may involve a fight or flight response that occurs at the spur of the moment. After the traumatic event has passed, it’s common for survivors to overestimate their ability to have prevented the traumatic situation, or to regret not helping people in more constructive ways. The resulting self-blame is often inaccurate and unfair, but the intense shame often leads people to engage in perpetual self-condemnation for an event that was probably totally random and unexpected. Often, trauma victims are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Shame tends to be even more pronounced for teachers, firemen, police officers or other people who have responsibility for the wellbeing of other people. When things go wrong in a traumatic situation, they may experience a tremendous sense of failure.

Childhood Trauma and Abuse

Children who experience physical or sexual trauma may blame themselves for the abuse because they “asked for it” by making the adult angry. They may feel they are to blame when an adult is incarcerated for the abuse, or if the abusive behavior leads to separation or divorce of their parents.

Further, young victims may feel extreme rage and may cope with the anger by acting out or bullying siblings or classmates. Childhood victims may continue to rationalize the abuse well into adulthood, and may perpetuate the pattern by abusing their own partner or children. This behavior serves to compound feelings of shame.

Symptoms of PTSD

  • Intense anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Nightmares
  • Behavioral disturbances
  • Aggressive behavior and angry outbursts
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • Flashbacks; reliving the traumatic event
  • Hopelessness
  • Suicidal thoughts

Shame, PTSD and Substance Abuse

Coping with PTSD and shame is difficult, and it isn’t uncommon for people to resort to unhealthy “survival” strategies or self-destructive behaviors. Understandably, many trauma victims turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to stop the terrifying thoughts and emotions. This is just a temporary distraction that makes the situation much worse, as addiction and substance abuse deter trauma victims from facing important issues while reinforcing feelings of failure and worthlessness.

Intensive therapy is often needed to help trauma victims resolve feelings of shame, work through trauma and grief, and gain a more balanced perspective. The good news is that over time, PTSD sufferers can discover new strengths and learn to practice compassion for self and others. In some cases, drug and alcohol treatment or rehab may be necessary in addition to specialized trauma therapy such as EMDR.

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