Trauma denial: How to recognise it and why it matters

What is trauma denial?

It is a defence mechanism to put distance between you and an overwhelming experience, as your brain tries to adapt and mitigate a reality collapse or system overload, which happens after a traumatic event.
Trauma denial is helpful in the short term as it allows the survivor to get back on their feet. However, until you acknowledge and recognise trauma for what it is, you're denying your own experience and an ability to heal from it.

Denial as a defence mechanism

Trauma denial often occurs when the reality of the trauma is so great that it is psychologically safer to bury, deny, suppress, or avoid what happened than to accept that the trauma ever occurred in the first place.
The psychological function of denial is to push aside overwhelming information to buy you some time and give you room to breathe after a traumatic experience. This may be a conscious or unconscious process.

Denial vs. emotional avoidance

Denial distorts facts and events by ignoring the existence of the event, there is no admission of a problem (e.g. believing and acting like that traumatic experience didn't affect you).
Avoidance is an attempt to refrain from feeling painful emotions by withdrawing or dissociating from specific experiences (e.g. using substance to prevent thinking about the event).

Benefits of denial


Avoid pain


Get on with life


Maintain an illusion of control


Remain loyal to someone who hurts you


Stick out a tough situation until you can safely get away


Protect your self-esteem

How to tell if you're in denial


Symptoms of avoidance


First to change a subject when the event was brought up


Feel uncomfortable when people around you get emotional or vulnerable


Divert attention away from yourself when questions about you are asked

How to resolve trauma


Reach out to professional support who can help you process and integrate trauma in a safe and appropriately-paced way


Participate in activities that nurture your mind, body, and spirit (e.g. deep breathing, massage therapy, meditation, regular exercise, grounding and somatic work, and yoga)

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