Overcoming denial of medical conditions

Denial is a common response to a stressful situation. It can be an important coping and defense mechanism. But it also can delay the appropriate response to circumstances that require action and change.

How can denial be helpful or a roadblock to good health?

Denial in its broadest sense means refusing to acknowledge painful or overwhelming external circumstances, avoiding the facts or minimizing the consequences.

Good denial — or even healthy skepticism — can help patients withhold judgment until all the facts are in. It prevents obsession with minor aches and pains. A cough does not mean pneumonia until it’s properly diagnosed by a doctor.

Good denial is used by everyone to block out annoying interferences. For example, stop and listen to the sounds around you. You may hear road noises, air-conditioning, wind, TV and radio sounds. These are normally blocked out of our conscious awareness until we need them. Ask any mother if she actually hears the normal sounds of children at play until there is a cry of pain or alarm – then she is instantly alert.

When patients hear bad health news, denying or suppressing it can offer needed time to come to grips with challenges ahead. Gradually adjusting to major changes can lead to better decisions in the long run. This gradual adjustment is referred to as an adaptive response. Just like we gradually adjust to annoying sounds and sights around us.

But denial that prevents patients from seeking treatment or leads to misuse of alcohol or drugs becomes a maladaptive or harmful response. A woman who finds a lump in her breast and ignores it misses the benefit of an early diagnosis and best chance for a cure. Denying the consequences of smoking or staying in an abusive relationship can jeopardize long-term health.

We use the ‘gradual adjustment’ facility instinctively to deny we have problems. Especially with alcohol because alcohol is something that may have become a good friend to relieve stress and emotional pain.

It all comes down to finding a healthy balance. When faced with an overwhelming turn of events, people can benefit from taking some time to adjust. But that doesn’t change the facts of the situation. A counselor, psychologist or general practitioner can help those stuck in denial find healthy ways of coping that will sustain overall health and well-being.

What is your experience, observations with denial?

Adapted from a story at the Mayo Clinic

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