Denial is a defense mechanism that protects you from emotional pain. Sometimes, however, healing is on the other side of it.
Healing from all types of trauma is possible, even if it takes some time.
For some people, the first step toward that recovery may be the most difficult one, though. Confronting the traumatic event and what it meant to you may bring up hurtful memories and sensations.
This is why denial is often a natural trauma response.
Trauma denial may serve as a shield that emotionally and mentally disconnects you from the traumatic event. But it may not aid you in healing the pain.
Understanding why trauma denial happens — and accepting that you may be living with it — can become a powerful healing tool.
Trauma denial is a way to put distance between you and an overwhelming experience.
It can be one of the many ways
As you might imagine, denial can be enormously useful.
“Trauma denial may be helpful in the short term. It allows the trauma survivor to stand up and get back on their feet,” says Sabina Mauro, a psychologist in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Yet, just like a trusty old pair of shoes, the comforts we learn to rely on may start to fall apart, if given enough time.
“Ongoing trauma denial causes more suffering than there needs to be. Although trauma survivors may learn how to suppress this unpleasant experience from their past, their body and mind will continue to carry it until the trauma is confronted,” says Mauro.
Addressing your trauma symptoms isn’t easy, but it can be rewarding. It can help you grow and integrate the parts of your past so you feel more solid, self-actualized, and whole.
Trauma is an emotional response to experiencing, or witnessing, a distressing event or series of events, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA).
Some experiences linked to trauma include:
- childhood abuse
- domestic violence
- loss of a loved one
- natural disaster
- sexual assault
Certain mental health conditions may develop after a traumatic experience:
Denial is a defense mechanism, aka, an efficient mental process that acts as a protective shield and helps you cope. It can help you minimize the impact an event has had on your life.
“Trauma denial often occurs when the reality of the trauma is so great that it is psychologically safer to bury, deny, suppress, or avoid what happened than to accept that the trauma ever occurred in the first place,” says Maryam Elbalghiti-Williams, a licensed certified social worker in College Park, Maryland.
The psychological function of denial is to push aside overwhelming information to buy you some time and give you room to breathe after a traumatic experience. This may be a conscious or unconscious process.
Denial is not the only psychological process that may happen after the traumatic event, though. You could also experience:
Denial versus emotional avoidance
Denial and emotional avoidance both create distance from a traumatic experience, but they’re slightly different:
“Denial distorts facts and events by ignoring the presence of the elephant in the room, so to speak. There is no admission of a problem,” says Lashara Shaw, a licensed professional counselor based in Naperville, Illinois.
Avoidance, on the other hand, can be an attempt to refrain from feeling painful emotions by withdrawing or dissociating from specific experiences, Shaw explains.
It could also involve avoidance of situations or interactions that may become emotional in any way.
For example, denial would be saying, believing, and acting like the traumatic experience didn’t affect you.
Emotional avoidance, on the other hand, could be using alcohol to prevent thinking about the event or feeling detached from friends and family in general.
There may be many benefits of denial, which could help explain why people develop this defense mechanism for unresolved trauma.
Denial can help you:
- avoid pain
- get on with your life
- maintain an illusion of control
- remain loyal to someone who hurts you
- stick out a tough situation until you can safely get away
- protect your self-esteem
And for those who’ve picked up on the fact that trauma may be more difficult to heal without the help of professional support, avoidance can provide yet another respite: a reason to steer clear of a therapist’s office.
“Psychologically, it can help people avoid stigmas that come along with diagnoses such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” says Meagan Turner, a licensed therapist in Tucker, Georgia.
“The problem with denying it is that until you acknowledge and recognize trauma for what it is, you deny your own experience. The trauma denial ultimately creates a barrier to the ability to heal from it,” says Turner.
If you’re living with trauma or PTSD denial, or you suspect that someone you love is, there are some signs that’ll help you identify this process.
Avoidance is one of them.
If someone brings up the event, you may be the first to change the subject. You may also feel uncomfortable when people around you get emotional or vulnerable.
If someone is asking you questions, you may divert attention away from yourself, preferring to learn more about whoever you’re talking with instead.
You may have symptoms of avoidance, like staying busy in romantic relationships, using work as an escape, or engaging in substance use.
One of the most common signs that someone is in denial is minimization, says Turner. It often comes out in the way you talk about (or, rather, don’t talk about) what happened.
Minimization can sound like:
- “It’s fine. I’m OK, really.”
- “That was then. This is now.”
- “I’m sure that happens to everyone.”
- “It wasn’t a big deal. I’ve moved on.”
- “There’s no use talking about the past.”
- “It wasn’t bad enough to be called trauma.”
- “That didn’t happen to me.”
- “I’m strong. I can deal with it fine.”
- “I just prefer not thinking about it.”
Everyone’s different, and these examples may not be what you relate to. Maybe you’re handling it in a different way. Self-exploration, ideally with the help of a health professional, may provide you with clearer signs.
Healing from trauma takes time, but it’s possible. When you can work through it, you may feel like taking off a heavy backpack you never even knew was there.
And when you finally reach the other side of trauma, there may be a new range of emotions available to you: relief, completion, lightness, closure, liberation, or joy.
To start your healing path, consider these tips to manage avoidance behaviors:
While it may be intimidating to think about reaching out for help, trauma-informed therapists are trained to help you process and integrate trauma in a way that is safe and appropriately paced.
“A common myth that keeps many survivors from seeking help is the idea that you have to re-tell every minute detail of what happened to you. That isn’t true,” says Williams.
“You can engage in transformative trauma therapy and never verbally describe the events,” Williams explains. “A good trauma therapist will help you use your body, art, and other expressive modalities to work through your trauma.”
As you navigate this healing process with a mental health professional, trying to also participate in activities that nurture your mind, body, and spirit can be helpful. These include:
- deep breathing
- regular exercise
- massage therapy
- grounding and somatic work
You may also find it useful to read about trauma recovery. Some therapist-suggested books include:
- “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk
- “Trauma and Memory” by Peter A. Levine
- “Trauma and Recovery” by Judith Herman
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach
Trauma impacts everyone differently. Recovery is a process unique to each individual. Allowing yourself to gravitate toward the approach that feels the most authentic for you can he helpful in maximizing your recovery process.
“There are multiple ways to address this; talking to a doctor, a counselor, a psychologist, a trauma-informed minister are all options,” says Shaw.
“Some individuals take great comfort through exercises, stretches, and maintaining relaxation in the body,” Shaw explains. “Not everyone desires to talk to professionals after experiencing a trauma, and that is OK.”
The important thing is going with whatever feels the most supportive. Meet yourself where you’re at. When and if you’re ready, you can always find help from a therapist.
The psychology of denial is simple: It’s your brain’s way of keeping you safe.
It’s a natural process designed to help you get on with your life. But, over the long term, denial may bar you from a sense of inner peace or an intimate connection with others.
While coming out of denial can be difficult, it may be worth it.
“Being in denial gives power to the past,” says Mauro. “Confronting your trauma gives power and control to you, right here and right now.”
We’re going to go with Team You on this one. You’ve got this.