Are you in denial?

Author: Flavia Nogueira

It’s not a river in Egypt. We’re talking about denial.


Although many associate it with something negative, Mayo Clinic points out that this defence mechanism can be helpful in specific situations and for short periods of time: “Being in denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological tailspin”.


Dr Elson Asevedo, psychiatrist and researcher at São Paulo Federal University, in Brazil, describes denial as a “primitive defence mechanism”.

“An example is the first reaction someone may have to a terminal cancer diagnosis. Often, the first reaction is denial, and this is not deliberate. It’s an unconscious reaction because, at that moment, one can’t handle that information,” explains the psychiatrist.


Comparing the brain to a computer, Dr Asevedo adds that, “if you have new information that the brain is not ready to deal with, you’ll need time to ‘download the software’ to handle that information. Preparing your brain, on many occasions, starts with denial”.


When it’s too much


What if your brain, or indeed, the brain of a loved one, takes too long to adapt to and deal with a situation? Is this persistent denial potentially harmful?


Psychology Today and Mayo Clinic present some scenarios in which this may be detrimental. For example, the CEO that refuses to recognise mounting problems in their organisation, the couple with huge credit card debt ignoring their bills or a person with chest pain and shortness of breath that doesn’t want to believe they are at risk of a heart attack. Denial is often used to avoid or put off facing the truth about something painful or challenging.


According to Mayo Clinic, “in situations such as these, denial might prevent you or your loved one from getting help, such as medical treatment or counselling, or dealing with problems that can spiral out of control”.


Just listen


The solution may seem easy: when you notice that a loved one is stuck in denial, just present them with the facts, right? Wrong.


This approach “won’t have any impact, it will probably only harm your relationship,” warns  Dr Asevedo.


He advises that all you should do is listen. 


“Listen to them with empathy, support them, show them you care. Sometimes, just by expressing themselves, talking to someone that won’t interrupt them, things get clearer. This is also the help you get with psychotherapy, but it’s done technically. However, a good listener, even if they’re not a counsellor, may help.”


Mayo Clinic seems to agree: “Don’t try to force someone to seek treatment, which could lead to angry confrontations. Offer to meet together with a doctor or mental health provider”.


However, when you are the one in denial it may not be as easy to recognise it.


“By definition, denial is usually unconscious. Even with counselling, it’s something that demands effort to handle this information. It’s a very specific process, demanding and detailed. It’s hard work,” explains Dr Asevedo.


There’s not an easy, one-size-fits-all solution. And that’s why you should ideally seek help from a qualified mental health professional. 




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