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 not being realistic about something that's happening in your life — something that might be obvious to those around you.

In some cases, a little denial can be a good thing. Being in denial for a short period can be a healthy coping mechanism, 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. Still, denial has a dark side. Being in denial for too long can prevent you from effectively dealing with issues that require action, such as a health crisis or a financial situation.

Find out when denial can help — and when it can be a roadblock.

Understanding denial and its purpose

Refusing to acknowledge that something's wrong is a way of coping with emotional conflict, stress, painful thoughts, threatening information and anxiety.

When you're in denial, you:

  • Refuse to acknowledge a stressful problem or situation
  • Avoid facing the facts of the situation
  • Minimize the consequences of the situation

In its strictest sense, denial is an unconscious process. You don't generally decide to be in denial about something. But some research suggests that denial might have a conscious component — on some level, you might choose to be in denial.

Common reasons for denial

You can be in denial about anything that makes you feel vulnerable or threatens your sense of control, such as:

  • A chronic or terminal illness
  • Depression or other mental health conditions
  • Addiction
  • Financial problems
  • Job difficulties
  • Relationship conflicts
  • Traumatic events

You can be in denial about something happening to you or to someone else.

Situations in which denial can be helpful

Refusing to face facts might seem blatantly 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 fully 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 decide to 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. As your mind absorbed it, however, you came to approach it more rationally and took action by seeking help.

Jun. 25, 2011 See more In-depth