Denial is a common barrier to us taking care better care of our health. We might deny there's an issue because we think it’s no big deal, the symptoms are just a normal part of getting older or the solution is simply a case of mind over matter.
“It is important to remember that denial is a coping mechanism and can be helpful in certain situations,” mental health counsellor and psychosexual therapist Chris Brett-Renes says. For example, you might stay in denial about a health concern in the lead up to seeing a health professional because you don’t want to needlessly worry. Or you might need time to work through the shock of a distressing diagnosis.
However, denial should be a temporary measure and over the long term, it could potentially worsen the problem.
“Fear, worry, anxiety, lack of control all feed into this distortion of our reality, and in small amounts this is fine, but if it is prolonged, it can have devastating impacts,” Chris says.
Luke Rigby experienced a significant period of denial when dealing with postnatal depression after the birth of his daughter.
“It took close to a year of my wife, who has a history of social anxiety and depression, telling me I was showing symptoms of depression and doing her best to support me and our newborn baby,” Luke says. “At least once a week she’d suggest I go chat to our GP and I'd be like, ‘No, I'm fine. I'm fine. It's all good.’”
It’s often those closest to you who will point out an issue you’ve been ignoring but it’s important to check in with yourself and recognise any concerns you need to act on. Some common signs you might be using denial when it comes to your health include:
- Refusing to talk about the problem
- Finding ways to justify your behaviour
- Blaming other people or outside forces for causing the problem
- Persisting with a behaviour despite negative consequences
- Promising to address the problem in the future
- Avoiding thinking about the problem
“If you're open with yourself and listen to how you're feeling, and not fighting it, then you can pick up on the little cues that help you,” Luke says. “It helps me to recognise when I need to go through steps in order to look after myself better…”
Once you’ve recognised you’re in denial about a health concern, it’s time to address it.
1. Honestly examine what you fear
“For some, it’s dying, others it’s pain or being sick, for others, it’s a fear of not working, not being able to afford treatment due to financial stresses,” Chris says.
2. Think about the potential negative consequences of not acting
“By not taking action it may in fact make the condition worse, by not taking action you might not be able to work, by not taking action you might not get to see your family grow up,” Chris says.
3. Allow yourself to express your fears and emotions
“There is nothing wimpy about expressing your fears around health, it takes guts to say, ‘I’m afraid of leaving you and the kids for treatment’, ‘I'm worried I might die’, ‘I'm scared of what people might think.’” Chris says. “By expressing the emotions, you are able to start working on them.”
4. Try to identify irrational beliefs about your situation
“One I used to hear a lot was ‘I'm not going into hospital! Gran went in and she never came out!’” Chris says. “Gran may have been in her 90s and had complex health issues, but events like these do impact people and can cause some to experience irrational beliefs that do impact how they interact with the health system.”
5. Write down your worries
“Journaling is a great activity, it helps you to corral and process emotions rather than letting them run wild in your head,” Chris says.
6. Open up to a loved one
“Talking about what you’re going through and what you’re feeling can help you process the rollercoaster of emotions that you may be experiencing,” Chris says. “Through talking to others, more often than not, we come to realise that we are not alone, that others have been through similar situations, and so we can learn from others about dealing with the health challenge that is before us.”
7. Participate in a support group
“There are a lot of support groups these days for a wide range of health conditions,” Chris says. “They are great places to find support, learn from others as well as get resources that might make your journey a bit easier.”
When we miss the opportunity to act early, minor issues can become much bigger. It's important to pay attention to what your body is telling you and seek out information and support as soon as you notice something's not quite right. This Men's Health Week we're breaking the barriers to better health for men. You can learn more here.