How Living in Denial Can Impact You
Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash
Written by: Sabrina Sourjah
Date Updated: 6/8/2021
Reviewed by: Patrick D. Randolph, Ph.D.
When we are grieving a loss, denial is one of the phases we go through in addition to guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, reconstruction, and eventual acceptance. We use denial to keep negative emotions like fear, guilt, distress, shame, and sadness at bay.
We deny things when it’s hard for us to accept them. Because when we accept our losses, we have to live with the reality of that loss — a loved one who is no longer with us, a company that fired us after we poured ourselves into the job, or an era that’s never going to come back in our lives.
Denial gives us peace of mind in the short term. But in the long term, denial can cause significant damage to our well-being.
What Is the Definition of Denial?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines denial as a defense mechanism that we use to ignore unpleasant thoughts, feelings, wishes, or events. Denial is an unconscious process that helps resolve emotional conflict and anxiety temporarily.
What Causes Denial Psychology?
Denial psychology is caused by the fear of losing control or when one’s emotional security is under threat by an external event. Stigmas in society can also cause one to be in denial because of the fear of being stigmatized and ridiculed.
Most Common Types of Denial
- Minimization: This involves minimizing a situation than it actually is. For example, denying that one is an alcoholic although they display all signs of alcoholism.
- Optimism Bliss: When one is blissfully optimistic, they will have a false sense of optimism that’s far from reality. This type of denial may keep one from accepting a partner’s infidelity, although there’s enough evidence to prove adultery.
- Avoidance: Avoiding distressful thoughts and emotions by ignoring the triggering event can bring temporary relief. People tend to avoid anxiety, trauma, boredom, and physical pain.
- Control Fallacy: This relates to denying the level of control in a situation. Sometimes, we tend to either overestimate or underestimate our control over events, thereby denying the real status.
- Mental Filtering: When one is filtering events or thoughts to focus on positive or negative ones, this is called mental filtering. For example, denying your partner’s abusive behavior by focusing on their positive traits is a means of mental filtering.
- Normalizing: Normalizing an event or loss without processing the feelings it triggered can be a temporary coping mechanism. When a loved one passes, we may temporarily take solace in all the funeral tasks that need to be attended to.
- Just-World Fallacy: This involves self-victimization and denying access to the choices and options you have in a given situation. The just-world fallacy can keep one in a loop of helplessness.
- Externalizing Responsibility: When one externalizes responsibility, they deny their contribution to a problem and refuse to take responsibility. This can help control one’s guilt temporarily.
How Denial Helps You Cope
1. Overall Health
When you deny a traumatic incident, you are allowing your brain to unconsciously absorb the information and process it at a pace that doesn’t psychologically debilitate you. This protects your body from a sudden adverse impact or a complete shutdown based on the criticality of the trigger.
If denial persists in the long term, it can turn into chronic stress. This can result in muscle tension, decreased energy, acne, aches & pains, headaches, irritability, fatigue, ulcers, weight changes, frequent infections, obesity, irritated bowel syndrome, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and eczema.
2. Surgery Outcomes
When one is healing from surgeries, perceived pain can play a vital role in recovery. Individuals who are anxious about physical pain or other events experience pain more. Denying some of the pain, therefore, can benefit the patient temporarily.
However, long-term denial can make one stressed because of having to deny situations continuously, and this stress can slow down wound healing, as per research.
3. Mental Health
Denial can also keep us away from anxiety and panic attacks when we ignore conditions that trigger anxiety. This is how some people are able to continue with their normal lives and attend to the caretaking needs of others, even amidst dire conditions. But this won’t work in the long term, and underlying causes will eventually result in mental illness.
Given the health impact and the high risk of mental imbalance when one is in denial, there will be an inevitable hit on life expectancy. For example, a study by the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare has estimated a loss of 2.8 years from the life expectancy of those who face “heavy stress.”
5. Life Satisfaction
Prolonged denial of reality has adverse impacts on physical health, mental health, surgery outcomes, and longevity. Therefore, its impact on life satisfaction can reasonably be expected to be unfavorable as well.
In the long term, living in denial can make your situation worse. It can sometimes keep you from taking timely action about your health. If you’re in denial about a loss, your grief can spill over to other parts of your life in ways you’ve never imagined.
Please talk to your doctor if you’re concerned that your denial may be harming you more than it’s helping you.