Walking through the grounds of hospital recently, there was the usual array of pyjama-clad patients catching a few moments in the sun. One such pair was a woman smoking a cigarette while attached to an IV, talking to an overweight man eating an ice cream.
Her: “You don’t have diabetes, do you?”
Him: “Well the doctor told me I have type 2. But I’m not worried about it because I don’t eat any junk.”
This got me thinking about our biggest health epidemic. It’s not smoking or diabetes. From where I sit, the greatest health hazard is denial.
“The human mind isn’t a terribly logical or consistent place. Most people, given the choice to face a hideous or terrifying truth or to conveniently avoid it, choose the convenience and peace of normality. That doesn’t make them strong or weak people, or good or bad people. It just makes them people.”
Jim Butcher, Turn Coat
Why we go to denial
A big challenge for a naturopath and health coach is helping a client to recognise their blind spots so they can work on the problem and move on.
Denial and self-deception are very human reactions. So common, they may be rooted in evolution. Denial is also an early stage in the grief cycle. Its tentacles are so well honed that it can be triggered by relatively minor health events. For example, when I was diagnosed with a food intolerance I hung onto denial for an unseemly long time.
If denial is a normal reaction to change, how can we get beyond it?
6 steps to overcome denial and live a healthier life
- Acknowledge the problem
The first step is acknowledging the issue. While you don’t have to commit to change, try to be honest about what is stopping you from living your best life.
- Consider the pros and cons
List the positive and negative aspects of your current situation. For example, the man outside the hospital might believe that enjoying the taste of ice cream, a pro. But the weight gain that causes his knees to hurt, a con. Certainly blindness and amputation, possible outcomes of type 2 diabetes, are potentially life threatening negatives. But many of us are unlikely to seriously consider the distant consequences. Start by focusing on the current situation as an immediate motivator (such as overcoming pain or discomfort, or being able to run after the children).
- Make a plan
Create a “game plan” as a substitute activity for the current habit that’s making you unwell. The smoker might reduce their number of daily cigarettes and focus on what she can do instead of lighting up. Her list might include taking a short walk, doing a crossword or other distractions. Whatever goals you choose, remember to write them down and track your progress each day.
- Go a step further
After achieving the first phase goals, ramp them up. The diabetic might begin with specific changes to his diet and then add a daily exercise to his goals.
- Pre-empt the roadblocks
When the smoker goes to the pub, she needs tactics to avoid reaching for her cigarettes. By recognising that having a glass in her hand or socialising with certain friends can be a trigger to smoke, she needs to plan ahead. It may help to drink in a smoke-free area, or go out with non-smoking friends initially. By pre-empting situations that are likely to derail us, we can develop alternatives to support new healthy behaviours.
- Get help
Just as denial is normal, so too are lapses. Setting a timeframe for each goal, with a back-up plan if we don’t reach it can be useful. For example, if the diabetic aims to reduce his waist size by 5 centimetres over the next three months but finds the opposite happens instead, he could consult a suitable health practitioner (naturopath, health coach, diabetes educator, dietician, exercise physiologist, etc) for help. When the smoker finds that she can cut down from 20 cigarettes a day to 10 but gets no further, seeing a qualified hypnotherapist could be the next step.
Even if denial is an evolutionary mechanism the counterintuitive downside is that it keeps us frozen, impeding our ability to make decisions that could improve our survival. Whether you need to change your diet to feel well, or face potentially lethal consequences of inaction (like the hospital patients I observed) moving beyond denial and choosing change can reap far ranging rewards. Focus on the most immediate benefits of these changes and enjoy each step you take towards a healthier life.