Not just a River in Egypt

Elisa A. Escalante/ LCSW/ 7-25-2022

“Time is ticking. Day by day, and month by month.

The silence is a killer, but so is the fear of breaking it.

I fear it when I feel it, but I miss it when it’s gone.

That’s just what it is… when everything you loved moved on.”

       Avoidance, denial, minimization, intellectualization, emotional numbing; why do we do it? Why not address what needs to be addressed in the moment? When the trauma or grief hits, the stress, and the turmoil, we are often, afraid of what this means for our emotions and behaviors. The painful times never come at convenient times, also, no time is a convenient time for pain. Pain and suffering are not welcome. We fear these things, though they are not only normal, but inevitable. Humans want to surf and glide the water, but the falling & crashing toward shore is always a lingering threat. So, let’s talk about this common denial and avoidance of feelings/ emotions as well as the why it happens and common examples.

        Denial:    To deny something is happening to you, or to deny it’s existence may happen in a variety of situations. When the circumstance feels too difficult to even acknowledge & deal with, people can exist in a state of denial about it. Perhaps it get’s pushed to the subconscious mind while we go about our days not addressing it. (Like sticking a pin in it with the plan of addressing it later, if at all) Denial also looks like creating a delusion in our own mind (a fixed false reality) to pretend we are not suffering as we are.  This can look like someone enduring abuse while pretending they are not being abused. This can look like faking smiles and happiness but in one’s own mind, feeling quite miserable. Denial is commonly used when one is not ready for drastic changes but is also not managing or liking their present situation.  

        Avoidance/ Isolation:  When denial fails and people are faced with intrusive emotions or symptoms, the next step is avoiding emotions and isolating from external triggers that could make them feel worse. Avoiding emotions can look like faking ones we do not actually feel, it can feel like constantly having thoughts pop up that you feel the urge to reject in an instant. We can also avoid through substance abuse, as drugs are powerful temporary potions that shift our brain. We can avoid ourselves by hyper focusing on other people or work/ hobbies. Isolation looks like staying away from certain situations, places and/ or people in order to avoid our external triggers. The pandemic created a mass isolation effect in which many people were staying in their homes for long periods of time to isolate from the many fears associated with the world outside; virus, community violence etc etc.

        Minimization:  If we cannot deny a problem, and we cannot avoid it or isolate from it, we may then minimize its impact on us.  This may look like statements of “I’m fine”, “It’s fine, “it’s not that bad”, “I’ve been through worse”, or “other people have it worse than me”.

        Intellectualization:  This is yet another thought process we can use when denial and avoidance are not possible. Let’s then intellectualize the scary situation to make it feel ‘less scary’. Such as “Stats show I’m not likely to die in this situation”. Or, “People die and there’s nothing we can do about it, so might as well accept it”.  

        Numbing:  Numbing is the absence of feelings all together. The brain has the incredible capacity to numb out when one needs to ‘not feel’ in order to function. Numbing is especially common for individuals with high responsibilities with the sense they do not have the time or luxury to process their traumas and grievances. Many people eventually admit to numbing out during work, parenting and other time-consuming activities to get through the day and then experience ‘emotional dumps’ when they finally have a few minutes to themselves. Hence, numbing may go hand in hand with ‘avoidance’ through the process of overworking.

        Dissociating: When situations become so horrific and we cannot escape or even attempt denial or numbing, dissociating is the last resort. Dissociating is described as the brains ability to be able to help a person ‘remove their conscious self’ from the current situation in order to survive it. This advanced defense mechanism is more common in extreme trauma situations such as sexual assaults/ abuse, physical abuse situations, natural disasters, combat traumas etc etc. Some trauma survivors report that certain aspects of the trauma(s) were ‘erased from their memory’. The more difficult aspect of this defense mechanism is that people that have survived traumas are more likely to dissociate in the present, even when it hinders their daily functioning. For example:  My current husband yelled at me, it triggered me back to a time I was abused by my ex-husband, I then dissociated and lost all recollection of the situation, then my husband got madder that I ‘blocked him out’ and stopped paying attention.

       Stoicism:  Not a defense mechanism, but rather, a concept/ way of living that focuses/ centers on living a life of ‘courage’, ‘bravery’, ‘managing one’s emotions’, and ‘reacting logically vs emotionally’. Some people strive to follow this lifestyle and look at it in a ‘logical manner’, while some take a philosophical approach. Some people even believe to be ‘stoic’ means to be absent of emotions or to view them as bad. Some concepts from stoicism are helpful in that they highlight ways humans may handle or deal with horrendous situations. Other concepts may hinder someone’s progress in that they may interpret stoicism to mean they use the above defense mechanisms that I already mentioned in this article. Hopefully, if someone is following stoic concepts and literature, their goal is to strive to get through a hard situation, without making it harder for themselves.  

Published by functionallymentall

Social Worker, Writer, USAF Veteran

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