Fear and denial

Old sayings are a poetic expression of generations of “living” experiences. They are usually right and very wise, but many times we are not strong enough to achieve the enormous task of leading a horse to water, nevermind making him drink.

My own new saying would be: “You might not succeed in making a stubborn person see a doctor, but if you do, he will probably not do as the doctor says.”

It may not sound that good but the meaning is there.

Talking about animal behaviour, we could also mention ostriches, which supposedly hide their heads in the sand when they are scared, only hiding the smallest part of their anatomy, not to see what might happen. What the eyes can’t see, the heart doesn’t feel …

We all have friends, family or working colleagues who, for no good reason, kick and scream at the thought of seeing the doctor, just for a physical.

Excuse me? Please hold on … No good reason? They have plenty of good reasons for ignoring health problems: “I don’t have time.” “I’m perfectly fine” (minus that daily headache and high cholesterol). “What are they going to tell me that I don’t know anyway?” “I don’t like being around sick people.”

Deniers, that’s what they are, behaving like irrational animals forgetting that, although we are animals as well, there is one difference: Man is the rational animal. But is he?

Getting past fear and excuses is the first step towards preventing health issues before they get too far.

Denying is irrational and can be deadly

Denying reality can be deadly and this is particularly true when it comes to health issues.

It is hard to face the reality that our health has changed to the negative, and sometimes we do not want to accept it.

It is important not to ignore the warning signs for health in general as many conditions can be prevented or reversed if treated early. Over time, some will progress to the point where they require medication, surgery, or other interventions.
So why is denial so common? Fear, irrational fear, is most of the time the underlying reason behind the excuses people give about their health issues. A lot of it is fear, as people feel that if they do not know what is wrong with them they are OK and that, once they know, they are not OK. Wrong but real.

The “AHA” moment

In the case of a severe event, such as heart attack, stroke or bleeding stomach ulcer, it is the same fear factor that can have an opposite effect on people who are in denial about their health and the patient finally “wakes up”. But will it last? Oh no! Most patients will initially do anything the doc says, but then, with time, some begin to fall into denial sleepiness again and fall off the healthcare wagon.

Generally, people have short memory for health, just like for anything else in life. After some time they forget. They forget how sick they were, how scared they were, the promises they made to themselves, their doctor and their family and friends. And as they go on feeling well, they “want to believe” that they are “cured” and, even better, miraculously “immune” to disease for the future to come. Well, they try to believe that they have had their share! Unfortunately, life is not a fairytale where the heroes live happily ever after. Life is a fight and you need to be more rational than an ostrich.

Catch it before it catches you

Discovering that you have a chronic illness is shocking in itself. No wonder people tend to deny it when they have it, as it usually demands that several significant lifestyle changes are made immediately.

Chronic conditions strike one in 10 people and, despite their incurable nature, proper self-management can help ease associated symptoms and prevent complications. The key, truthfully, is to prevent these nasty health problems from surfacing in the first place and there are plenty of new treatments to help.

The picture becomes more complex with silent illnesses, including high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes, as these put people at risk of much bigger problems down the road. All three conditions are tied to stroke and heart disease, the leading killers. Their slick nature makes getting regular check-ups essential, whether we like it or not.

People should take an active role in prevention although it might not be easy, but at some point we all must take responsibility for our own health and our decisions.

Getting over fear and denial

Denial is a delicate and frustrating equation, a balance between a person not wanting to seek treatment and someone else wanting him or her to just do something!

Newton, a well known expert in morbid obesity, says: “Rather than pointing out the faults, I encourage people to just have a healthy check-up focusing on the positive of optimal health and improving their health. We should find a reason for them to come. For example, so that they can walk better, so they are not short of breath, so that they do not have so much fatigue, so that they sleep better.”

All of us tend to believe that we know ourselves much better than those around us, but actually evidence says that that may not be true.

When we want to help someone to get over denial and fear, we have to motivate, to make the person understand, feel that it is important. We might, if we are lucky, but at least we have tried!

People have to love themselves enough and the ones around them to want to be healthy. If they do not, there is no magic pill that will shake people’s denial, as there is no magic in life that will solve all our problems. Thinking further, maybe there is a little bit of magic… just a tiny bit, not too much, not enough to endanger reality. You know, maybe only a little magic can take some horses to water and make them drink.

But do not forget that “God helps those who help themselves”!

Best healthy wishes,
Dr. Maria Alice