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  • Writer's pictureForesight Mental Health

Shed the Shame: Social Anxiety & the Brain

Updated: Apr 3

by Dr. Jerry Gelbart, M.D.

Reposted from The Potent Mind

The first article in the GET A-HEAD SERIES, called “The Fear Switch,” explained how the amygdala has evolved to be prone to false alarms. Once the alarm is activated, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in to “fight or flight” mode. Fight or flight mode is a healthy response to some situations, such as when we’re about to be hit by a bus. However, many other situations and thoughts can activate the fear switch inappropriately, causing unnecessary distress, anxiety, or panic.  Examples include:

  • Thinking of something bad that may or may not happen in the future.

  • Thinking that we might be rejected or abandoned.

  • Fear of not being normal.

  • Fear of humiliation.

  • Fear of being a failure.

  • In chronic stress, fear that we’ll drop a ball and everything will come crashing down.

Article #1 also described the irrational “toxic judging” that our brain does so automatically. Everything is judged in black or white categories. A person is either normal or not normal, good or bad, strong or weak, a success or a failure. When we feel insecure about our self we think that if we are not normal… or good… or strong… or successful, then we will be rejected and alone forever. That thought sets off our fear switch big time! While the first article focused on the alarm itself and what happens, the focus here will be on the “judgment generator,” which is the source of our insecurities. I encourage the reader to review the “Patches” at the end of Article #1 related to fear.

Many of the situations that set off false alarms are related to toxic judging and shame. Shame is about being rejected by our “tribe.” The Ventral Medial Prefrontal Cortex (VM-PFC) in our brain can be called the “judgment generator” or, “The Shame Center.” This part of our brain focuses on how people will judge us, and whether we “fit in” or not. Its job is to protect us from rejection. But it doesn’t know when to stop! We experience the VM-PFC as that little “voice in our head” which brings up our self-doubts and insecurities. Perhaps you can see how this might be involved in social anxiety. In fact, the VM-PFC is also hyperactive in other anxiety disorders such as obsessions, compulsions, and eating disorders, with low self-esteem and when we lose our motivation.

When toxic judging is in high gear, your VM-PFC might say to you “If you embarrass yourself people will think you’re a fool and not take you seriously… you’ll be shunned and alone forever.” That thought, and the images in your mind of people who are written off and forgotten, sets off the fear alarm. This can include racing thoughts, racing or pounding heart, tension, shortness of breath, and butterflies in the stomach. This whole process can be reinforced by further “emotional reasoning” if you conclude, “Wow, if my body is reacting this way there must really be something wrong with me!” We can get so caught up in the automatic negative thoughts and the corresponding physiologic reactions that we can’t get out.

Evolutionarily, there have been benefits of an active VM-PFC, along with its adjoining networks. In pre-modern times when people lived in tribes, what happened to those who did not “fit in”? Ostracism or banishment could mean death in the wilderness. Fitting in was life or death.  Although our VM-PFC still believes this is the case, it no longer is. Our shame center still acts as if we live in a tribe surrounded by wilderness, which most of us don’t. It still carries on with all the same judging and fears. When active, this area is judging you and worrying about how others are judging you.

Some types of judging evolved to keep us safe. For instance, judging is useful in deciding if others are trustworthy or dangerous, and for evaluating our own actions, in order to guide us to be true to our own values. However, toxic judging amplifies and exaggerates the “classification” into absolutes. It is hyper-concerned about how others will classify us, causing us to be fearful that we will be “classified” as not-normal.

Bad news: The more you listen to your VM-PFC and it’s black or white judging the more you strengthen it. Even arguing with that voice in your head strengthens it.

Good news: You can learn to disengage from that part of your brain, and thereby reduce its energy and power. Practicing mindfulness makes it easier and easier to step back, label the toxic judging and not get hijacked by it.

Shame generated by “toxic judging” is irrational and not based on facts. Shame is “justified” if ones’ behavior causes ejection from the group. On the other hand, guilt is “justified” if we have violated our own values. Defining your values and connecting with people who share similar values can reduce shame, and fears of rejection. You can then live a life of values instead of a life of fears (of rejection). We can replace toxic judging with healthy judging, discerning what behaviors, and which people are healthy and wholesome for you.

Brain Patch #2

1) The “voice in our head” is a remnant from tribal living plus the black or white beliefs we formed as children. Its only concern is to protect you from shame. It can hold you hostage.

Separate what your “Shame Center” is saying to you versus what’s really happening.

  • Would people you care about really reject you for certain things?

  • Do you agree with the values of these people? 

  • Ask yourself:

  • “Is this toxic judging?”

  • “What am I really afraid of?”

  • “Have I been true to my moral code?”

  • You can learn to step back from the voice and consider it as “just one opinion….” And you can respond to it “thank you for sharing.”

2) Unnecessary stress comes from worrying about what people will think of you if you:

  • Can’t handle everything put on you.

  • Let something fall through the cracks, or make a mistake.

  • Tell them “No that’s too much for me.”

  • Ask for help.

If you feel stressed, step back and listen to what you’re telling yourself.  If you’re hearing words like “failure,” “weak,” or “inadequate” these are indications that your stress is shame-based. 

3) Challenge any “all-or-nothing” thinking, labels, categorizing, judging, or jumping to conclusions.

Practice NOT buying into them. It’s even better to laugh at our tendency to do this so automatically! Over time, the goal is to learn to shrug off that critical voice in our head with minimal effort.

4) Spend time developing your values, your own belief system about the “right” way to live, and what is most important to you for the future. Think about what character traits you want to develop in yourself.

{Download the Character traits template here}

  • Example: What kind of “judging” do you believe is ok?

  • Judging if someone is “normal” or not? “Defective”? “Worthy or worthless”?

  • That people shouldn’t have faults or that we have to prove something?

  • Or do you think it’s better to be non-judgmental?

  • Don’t go by how you think others judge; it has to be your code of what’s right.

  • Then connect with people who share your values. Work around those who don’t.

  • What is more important, acting according to your values or being liked?

5) Consciously shift from blaming, faulting, and defensiveness to humility and compassion, for our self and others.

  • Accepting weaknesses and mistakes in our self and others.

  • Loving unconditionally

  • Healthy boundaries

  • Compassionate assertiveness

  • Awareness of inter-dependence and inter-connectedness.

6) People’s judgment isn’t what gets us banished; it’s breaking the code. Usually if you act on your values and get rejected, you can find others who share your values. It’s breaking laws of the land that get you removed from society.

A hypersensitive fear switch and overactive shame center combine to cause a huge amount of avoidable suffering. The next article in the series will help you improve your confidence, assertiveness, and intentionality. By practicing Mindfulness and following my blog you will learn to calm your fears and shed your shame!


If you or someone you care about is in need of support, call Foresight today to schedule an appointment. All of our therapists are continuing to support our members through telehealth.


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