I LOVE old sayings. They are a poetic expression of generations of living experiences. Although they are usually right and very wise, I have some doubts about this one. Often, we are not strong enough to lead the horse to water … never mind making it drink! Allow me to create my own saying: “You may not succeed in making a stubborn person see a doctor … but, if you do, he will probably not do as the doctor says!” Well, it doesn’t sound very good, but I am sure you understand what I mean.
Going on with animal behaviour and following the horses, we could talk about ostriches, which supposedly hide their heads in the sand when they are scared, only hiding the smallest part of their anatomy, so 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 a doctor, even for a physical. Excuse me, please hold on … For 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?” or “I don’t like being around sick people”.
Disbelievers, 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! (Is he?) Getting past fear and excuses are the first steps towards preventing health issues before they go too far.
Denial is irrational
and can be deadly
Denying reality can be deadly and is particularly true when it comes to health issues. It’s hard to face the fact that our health has changed for the negative and, often, we don’t want to accept it.
It is important not to ignore the warning signs of poor health in general, as many conditions can be prevented or reversed if treated early. However, over time, some 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 don’t know what is wrong with them, then they are OK, and that, once they know, then they won’t be OK. Wrong but … ridiculously true, for them!
Anyway, what is there to fear? Some people who have a family history of a certain illness are so fearful of it when they begin to have symptoms, that the thought of actually going in and seeing the doctor is too frightening. Others consider that illness is a distraction or a weakness, and that is not their kind of thing, they have no time for “such rubbish”. There is still another group of people who feel so distressed in their lives that their health is just a low priority compared with other things.
“The aha moment”
In the case of a severe event, such as a 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.
I remember reading a health article where the author called it “the aha moment”, as when suffering a heart attack the patient finally “wakes up”. Do you think that he/she will be “awake” for a long time? Oh no! Most patients will initially do anything the doctor 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, their family and their 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. They say (and try to believe) they have had their share! Unfortunately, life is not a fairy tale 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. Who likes it?
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. Besides fear, the required lifestyle changes, which are drilled in our brains over and over again (lose weight, exercise regularly, quit smoking, eat right), are painfully difficult for most but, at some point, we must all take responsibility for our own health and decisions.
Getting over fear
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 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, they’re not short of breath, don’t have so much fatigue or 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, make the person understand and 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 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 health wishes,
Dr. Maria Alice
Consultant in General and Family Medicine
Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service
Tel. 917 811 988