Denial: When it helps, when it hurts

Denial is a coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations — but staying in denial can interfere with treatment or your ability to tackle challenges.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you're in denial, you're trying to protect yourself by refusing to accept the truth about something that's happening in your life.

In some cases, initial short-term denial can be a good thing, giving you time to adjust to a painful or stressful issue. It might also be a precursor to making some sort of change in your life. But denial has a dark side. Find out when denial is unhealthy and how to move past it.

Understanding denial and its purpose

Refusing to acknowledge that something is wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information and anxiety. You can be in denial about anything that makes you feel vulnerable or threatens your sense of control, such as an illness, addiction, eating disorder, personal violence, financial problems or relationship conflicts. You can be in denial about something happening to you or to someone else.

When you're in denial, you:

  • Won't acknowledge a difficult situation
  • Try not to face the facts of a problem
  • Downplay possible consequences of the issue

When denial can be helpful

Refusing to face facts might seem unhealthy. Sometimes, though, a short period of denial can be helpful. 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.

For example, after a traumatic event, you might need several days or weeks to process what's happened and come to grips with the challenges ahead. Imagine what might happen if you find a lump in your throat. You might feel a rush of fear and adrenaline as you imagine it's cancer.

So you ignore the lump, hoping it'll go away on its own. But when the lump is still there a week later, you consult your doctor.

This type of denial is a helpful response to stressful information. You initially denied the distressing problem. But as your mind absorbed the possibility, you began to approach the problem more rationally and took action by seeking help.

April 14, 2017 See more In-depth