Dissociative Hypoarousal and The Biology of Shame

Dissociative Hypoarousal and The Biology of Shame

Photo by Jonas Jaeken on Unsplash


"He had misinterpreted the feelings which had kept her face averted, and her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against herself, mortification and of deep concern. She had not been able to speak; and, on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment overcome; then reproaching herself for having taken no leave, making no acknowledgement, parting in apparent sullenness, she looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was just too late...Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed to feel it more. She had never been so depressed...and Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, as extraordinary as they were." 

--Jane Austen, Emma

Young Emma Woodhouse likely values the opiniion of her longetime family friend, Mr. Knightly, more than anyone's,  After speaking to Miss Bates with careless rudeness, Mr. Knightly scolds Emma severely.  She reacts, as many of us would when someeone we admire shows disappointment and anger with us. We feel deep shame. 

Austen's description of shame inclues reactions most of us can relate to. We find it hard to meet someone's eye. We feel overcome with a desire to shrink away. Our energy levels crash and we struggle to speak. Over time, these reactions can feed into a shame spiral and depressed feelings. All of these reactions not only all fall under the umbrella of shame, but they also fit with hypoarousal.

Shame and hypoarousal share many characteristics for one simple reason -- the biological process that occurs when we experience a shame spiral is hypoarousal. 

With shame spirals, individuals experience a rapid shift from calm to extreme hypoarousal. Chemically, during shame spirals, the body releases corticosteroids, which inhibit positive emotions.  Shame pulls us into an immobilization response and out of social engagement (Schore, 2003). A shame spiral is one form of emotional hijacking.

With hypoarousal, also known as the “death feigning response,” it does not seem coincidental that feeling shame can make us feel like a piece of us just died inside. Without studying the biology of it, many of us could describe shame as “not wanting anyone to look at me” and feeling that we cannot meet someone’s eye. We use the expression, “I could die of shame.” That feeling mirrors our biology and explains why shame is one of the most difficult emotions to sit with and tolerate for any length of time.

Toni Morrison created one of her heroines, Pecola Breedlove, as a child steeped in shame. In the forward to The Bluest Eye, Morrison describes Pecola as follows:


“There can’t be anyone, I am sure, who doesn't know what it feels like to be disliked, even rejected, momentarily for sustained periods of time…But there are some who collapse, silently, anonymously, with no voice to express or acknowledge it. They are invisible." (Morrison, 1993).


Unilke Emma Woodhouse, Pecola's shame endures. It derives from repeated traumas including racism, emotional neglect, and sexual abuse. Repeated, chronic trauma perpetually gives her the message that she simply can never be good enough. The consistent shaming leads to an enduring hypoarousal response. Most children lack the internal resources to survive such deep trauma without some ability to split off from themselves and dissociate. Pecola's, dissociation allows her to become "invisible." Morrison wrote her novel to give a voice to such voiceless children. 

Many trauma survivors resemble Pecola. Due to repeated traumatic experiences, early traumatic experiences, or enduring cycles of posttraumatic stress dysregulation, these survivors exist in a state of perpetual hypoarousal. I will explore how this occurs in more detail with a new series called The Three Pathways.

Unfortunately, Pecola Breedlove never received an opportunity to compassonately understand herself and her trauma. For others, recognizing shame spirals, emotional hijacking, and knowing their hyper- and hypo-arousal triggers can be an important step in recovering from trauma.


The content of this blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any condition or disease. This blog is not intended as a substitute for consultation with a licensed practitioner. Please consult with your own therapist or healthcare provider regarding any suggestions and/or recommendations made in this blog. Although the author has made every effort to ensure that the information in this blog was correct at publication time and while this publication is designed to provide accurate information in regard to the subject mater covered, the author assumes no responsibility for errors, inaccuracies, omissions, or any other inconsistencies herein and hereby disclaim any liability to any party for any loss, damage, or disruption caused by errors or omissions. Unless otherwise indicated by name or direct reference, any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. The use of this blog implies your acceptance of this disclaimer. 


The following sources were invaluable in writing the above article:

Austen, J. (1881) Emma: A Novel. Ward, Lock & Co. 

Morrison, T. (1993). The Bluest Eye. Vintage International. 

Schore A. (2003). Affect Dysregulation and Disorders of the Self. W. W. Norton.


© Nancy B. Sherrod, PhD

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