Denial is an important defense mechanism that gives us time to adjust to difficult situations. However, staying in the denial phase can interfere with your ability to function in everyday life.
If you’re in denial, you’re attempting to protect yourself from the truth. You might feel overwhelmed and numb, struggling to function in work, school, or daily life. Sometimes, initial short-term denial can be a good thing, giving you time to adjust after a stressful issue. Denial can also inspire you to make some sort of shift in your life. Unfortunately, denial can also take a significant toll on your mental health.
When is denial healthy?
Refusing to accept the truth might seem unhealthy. However, initial short-term denial can be healthy. As one of the five stages of grief, the denial phase helps your mind absorb distressing information at its own pace. Grief doesn’t necessarily involve a loss of life—and denial might be triggered by the loss of a relationship, pet, home, job, or a difficult diagnosis, such as a disability or chronic physical health condition.
After a traumatic event, you might need some time to process what happened. This type of denial is a healthy response to trauma. After your mind absorbs the situation, you’ll start to approach the problem more rationally and take the appropriate action.
When is denial harmful?
When you don’t take the appropriate action, such as seeking professional mental health care, denial can turn into a harmful response. Some examples of unhealthy denial include:
- A bystander witnesses a traumatic car accident but claims they’re not affected.
- A cancer patient chooses not to seek medical treatment, insisting that they’re getting better.
- A coworker consistently misses meetings due to substance use problems but insists that he’s okay because he’s still showing up to work.
- A person with heart disease experiences chest pain but refuses to acknowledge their symptoms.
As a defense mechanism, denial might prevent you from seeking help, such as medical treatment or mental health services. Denial can affect anyone at any stage of life—from adolescence through adulthood.
If ignored, denial can create a vicious cycle, creating problems with devastating consequences. Over time, denial can lead to mental health concerns, such as anxiety, low mood, and stress.
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Treatment Options for Denial
When faced with a traumatic event, it’s healthy to take some time to work through what happened. However, it’s also important to realize that denial should only be temporary—it shouldn’t become a part of everyday living.
With that said, it’s not always easy to tell when denial is interfering with your mental health. Especially for individuals with chronic physical health problems and mental health issues, the strength of denial might vary over time. If you feel stuck, here are some treatment options to overcome your denial:
- Talk therapy. Working with a licensed therapist can help you work through denial and move forward. Whether you’re experiencing a specific mental health condition, such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or you’re working through grief, speaking with a mental health professional can help you understand your responses.
- Regular check-ups. If you’re experiencing physical health problems, regular check-ups can help rule out any underlying medical problems. Additionally, if you’ve been diagnosed with a physical health condition, it’s important to stay in touch with your primary care doctor and avoid missing any appointments.
- Social support. Having an open, honest conversation with a close friend or trusted family member can help you realize you’re stuck in the denial phase and find the social support you need to move forward.
- Support groups. If you’ve witnessed a traumatic event, sharing your experience with a support group can help you start the recovery process. According to clinical research by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), support groups provide a valuable source of connection, especially for individuals with substance use disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you’re unsure where to start, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers various support group resources.
- Helplines. If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264). You can also text the Crisis Text Line anytime by texting HOME to 741741. If you’re experiencing substance use problems, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers addiction recovery services at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Therapy for Denial
Denial is a necessary step to healing—but it’s not a long-term solution. Therapy can provide a safe, non-judgmental space for you to acknowledge the problem and address it directly. Ultimately, professional support is most effective for individuals willing to embark on the process.
To find a therapist, reach out to a mental health professional through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements. Whether you’re experiencing mental health problems, navigating a difficult diagnosis, or overcoming trauma, one of our compassionate therapists will help you start feeling better.