Shame and Neuroception

Don't look at me

Neuroception is a newish term coined by Stephen Porges.

Neuroception is an automatic neural process that evaluates – amongst other things – risk in our environment. It monitors our physiological response to potential risks, but does so outside our awareness. We cannot report on it happening (and that’s true of a lot of things going on in the conversation within our bodies and minds!).

Neuroception and perception

Compare this process with “perception” – a term for how humans make sense of things. That does involve thinking and conscious articulation. Safe experiments with the latter are not so tricky as they involve conscious ways of communicating differently

I offer more information on neuroception and neurology on a few pages. Is this a good start – this page?

Also, consider the actions of the impala once again; in that short clip you see an animal execute biologically based, non-conscious action patterns that prepare them to respond to threat. This is evidence that Peter Levine would bring to our attention.

Deb Dana and the Vagus nerve

In September 2022, Deb Dana reminded me about these issues and she helped me reflect on the role of shame and neuroception in trauma. Her material is worth researching – particularly her understanding of the hierarchy existing between the three pathways of:

  1. Ventral Vagal system
  2. Sympathetic Nervous System
  3. Dorsal Vagal system

Neuroception may scan the environment for safety and danger continuously without us noticing – but scanning costs. When we scan we use up our available resources. As our cells are in a continual state of regeneration the direction of that regeneration can be impacted by our scanning activities.

Any breakdown on the communication between these Dana’s three systems listed above can dysregulate our bodies and throw us into the extreme responses. I have identified four of them in my illustration of the Window of Tolerance (WOT).

Dana reinforces this point via this quotation:

“…our physiological state on any given day can influence our
molecular make-up for weeks and months into the future.”

Slavich, G. M., & Cole, S. W. (2013). The emerging field of human social genomics.
Clinical Psychological Science, 1(3), 331-348.

An introduction to Shame in therapy

Shame is a one reaction that builds up inside us – slowly – over time. Like a slow-moving river the sludge builds up layers on the river bed – out of sight, but not out of mind.

Therefore, it is not easy to design and implement small, safe experiments to lessen the impact of Shame. For a start, it is not an easy experience to admit. Privately, we may admit it is an important driver in our lives, but even then the significance of our Shame in our lives is not obvious. For instance, it’s tricky, but not impossible, to simply affirm Shame out of our life.

Some important work needs to be considered BEFORE we can DO something about the experience of Shame, and look it in the eyes. Indeed, therapy might not bring a quick result. For instance, any consideration and compassion showed by me, as a therapist, can tighten the noose of Shame. This unhappy outcome can arise not from my intended actions, but from unseen forces that enable the therapeutic relationship to recreate or reinforce – past shaming events.


The result can be painful – literally and metaphorically – as this website demonstrates.

As with any pain, we seek to distance ourselves from it. The end result is that you, as ‘client’, and I, as therapist can create a meaning that undermines the ‘connection’ between us. Too often, ‘neurological protections’ come into operation for one or both of us. For more on this, look at this page although I’d say now it’s all a bit indigestible!

Good intentions are not enough

These ‘neurological protections’ were the focus of attention in Dana’s workshop. Let’s consider how her work might identify some small, safe experiments. Several focus on experiments that increase our curiosity and compassion for self and others … but it’s not all ‘common-sense’.

Dana said shame reduction has to consider several issues:

1. That the shame response is part of the automatic survival response and it can shape our habitual responses. For instance, it can recruit our Amgydala to send out threat signals.

2. That it exists to increase our experience of safety (note how just putting our heads down is an automatic response that disconnects us from our surrounding).

3. That it is part of the connect/disconnect response I have discussed before. Stephen Porges described trauma as a chronic disruption of connection.

Dana pointed out that the messages signalling safety and danger cues work:

  • inside my body, and
  • outside in my immediate environment, and
  • between people.

Given Dan Siegel’s definitions of Mind, I’d emphasise that the ‘conversation’ between the three processes goes on between people and their bodies, the immediate environment and a much wider environment. It goes beyond patterns of attachment in an extended family into the wider world with all its injustices.

Starting with a Body Scan?

Dana respects that fact I am sure but I want to emphasise it given my interest in small, safe experiments. For instance, the Body Scan is an experiment to help us notice what we feel inside our bodies, but other experiments are needed to observe and negotiate our ‘place’ with other people and that wider outside world. Hence my pages on ecograms and the social inequalities in our world.

Those communications outside ourselves create tricky links. We are provided with information ‘out there’ – but our ways of perceiving the world mean we understand it in our own unique fashion.

So it is with the human shame response; this is a socially-shaped feeling as well as an autonomic response that swamps our ability to have some self-compassion.

For more on an academic consideration of ‘self-compassion’, do take a look at Kristin Neff and Chris Germer and their Paper at:

But going back to Dana, she says it is not easy to generate self-compassion when we are:

  • Bombarded by signals of danger and disconnection
  • Searching for signs of safety and connection, without success
  • In unfamiliar territory
  • Facing unpredictable events all making it difficult
  • To catch our breath.

Consequently, breathing disorders are often the first sign of dysregulation.

Some more specific safe experiments


One strategy is to ‘normalise’; by demonstrating how moments of protection happen for everyone. It pays to get to know how your fight-and-flight pathways come to life. This can be helped by seeking information about the workings of the Ventral Vagus, The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and the Dorsal Vagus.

There are references to these links throughout this website; try this page for a starter.

The aim of a safe experiment, here, is to get to know our ways of fighting so a greater familiarity means we are less deterred by them.

Dana encourages us to devise sentences and stories using the different ‘states’ and the ’emergent properties’ within each state, listed above. A practical example is to write a letter to yourself when you are in a good place – to be read when you are in a bad place.

She provided useful information on the signs of threat and signs of being welcomed and encourages clients and practitioners to re-balance those ‘signs’ with compassion and a sense of awe. For my part, I’d simply emphasise the value of anything that enhances your curiosity.

You would need to inquire further about her work to review such exercises on practice.

Here is a video link that might be of interest.

Affirmation work

Consider this statement: guilt is difficult enough when I have done something wrong but it is harder to feel Shame. Shame is a pervasive feeling making a unique statement about who I am. Despite what I say, above, here an affirmation, or an antidote to consider:

Shame is not me; I have choices about how I talk to that part of me that I call my Shame.

Transactional Analysis

My own contribution is to encourage you to visit:

  1. The Transactional Analytic notion of Games.

Games are played out of our awareness and it follows that our social engagement system – the Ventral Vagal system – is not fully engaged. Anything that promotes greater self-awareness and improved consciousness is likely to help us relate differently to our shame.

The Three P’s

And then there are the Three P’s; where I translate seeking Protection as a step taken to create safety, rather than the Dorsal Vagus survival strategy (although Dorsal reactions are protections in one sense of the word)..

To achieve that Protection requires Permission to re-establish some control over the working of our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

This, in its turn, requires potency and self-confidence to re-balance our Sympathetic and Para-sympathetic systems – an essential step towards re-engaging our Ventral Vagus/Social Engagement system.

Some specific safe experiments that move toward this include:

Creating a Safe Place

Use of actions

Use of the Expressive Arts

Improving motivation

Scrutinising our ways of communicating

and doing them differently!

….. what if life seems not worthwhile

Follow up and other leads to follow

What is a nudge?

Designing a safe experiment

Fitting nudges into our own scenic route

Reviewing the impact of our nudges

Looking to the future

An index of all pages on Your Nudge