Do Uncomfortable Experiences Make You Turn Away?


Is Denial Helpful?


This week I saw an internet video of a Syrian boy standing amongst rubble asking a cameraman for food for his younger siblings. The boy is ashamed to ask for help, but is forced to do so because he has no other options. The cameraman tells the boy that he has no food for himself, so can’t give food to him or his family. For those that are unaware, Syria has been in war state since 2011 with hundreds of thousands of civilian children affected each year.

Does this image make you want to turn away?

Does this make you want to turn away?

Having a young son myself I found this short clip very distressing, but what I found interesting was that my initial response was to deny its credibility. To protect me from my distress, my head instantly discredited the video by making me question whether the subtitles were accurate and whether the video was real or orchestrated for political purposes. The reaction I had isn’t uncommon; denial is a common psychological reaction to traumatic situations and it’s one you might experience watching the news or reading the newspaper. It’s common because it’s effective. Denial helps to protect us and keep us safe when the emotions we’re feeling are too strong for us to process.

Still not everyone reacts to trauma with denial, we each have our own individual mode of defence. Some people cope by withdrawing from the people around them, others cope by trying to control other aspects of their environment, whether that be their household cleanliness or their dietary intake. While different, what each of these trauma responses has in common is that they help us to cope with distress in incomprehensible situations. They help us to continue to function in times of distress, whether that be distress caused by chronic illness, a traumatic accident, or an abusive relationship.

But while psychological defences like denial are helpful, they also have a downside. They’re often so subtle and effective we’re not even aware we’re using them. This means that sometimes we fail to see things clearly and really acknowledge a situation, which stops us from feeling empathy for those around us who are suffering, or truly grateful for our blessings.

It can feel uncomfortable to take notice of the awful things happening around us, but if you’re able to tolerate these feelings of discomfort, when it’s safe to do so, it opens the door for you to have a more mindful and open perspective. I am very fortunate to know that my son may never have to endure such hardship as the boy in this video, but I would also like to be able to acknowledge the hardship of others and not deny their existence.

Shanna is a warm and empathic clinically trained registered psychologist very experienced at working with children, adolescents, families and adults. She has extensive experience practicing from a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) approach, but is also experienced with Acceptance Based Therapy (ACT), Dialectical behaviour Therapy (DBT), Schema therapy, Mindfulness and Biofeedback evidence-based approaches. Shanna works with a range of presentations including anxiety disorders, depression, emotional dysregulation, stress and adjustment.


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