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Denial vs. Distraction in Mental Health-Are They Different?

You have all heard of denial and that in most cases it is not good for your mental health to be there. Denial is a defense mechanism designed to help you avoid or process at your own pace new, scary, difficult or overwhelming information about yourself or a certain situation. This can be ok as it serves as a buffer to process these things as you are able. For instance you may receive a diagnosis of depression or bipolar depression that may feel like too much to think about right then, say nothing about formulate a plan to address it.

This is an example of immediate denial and as stated before that can be ok. Long term denial of problems that are obvious to others is a different story, and that is the type that usually harms you to some degree. Missing work due to drinking too much, isolating yourself due to depression or fears of going out and making excuses about “just being tired” or “too busy” are examples of this. When combined with behaviors designed to perpetuate the excuses, it becomes a lifestyle before you know it. But not a healthy, fun and creative lifestyle, rather one based in fear and unsuccessful attempts at control. A life that at any moment can spiral out of control.

Dysfunctional families are often seething pits of denial, carrying many generations of emotional baggage forward that goes unaddressed and causes major unhappiness for family members. There may be a sophisticated group of evasive behaviors in place to allow family members not to have to deal with the real problems. You know somewhere inside there is something wrong. It doesn’t have to stay this way, armed with the right tools and the right help you can break free from these unhealthy cycles.

In my previous post on self-soothing, I talk about how to help yourself feel better, calm yourself and become mindful of what is going on with you.  Having these skills in your emotional toolbox can enable you to deal with uncomfortable information about yourself and make headway on seeking the proper help.

A specific skill I discuss is the ability to distract yourself, and I am asked frequently whether or not that is just another form of denial. It is not.  Distracting yourself is a deliberate behavior you employ to feel better for the time being. It frees up your mind for a bit and can help break the cycles of rumination that get you nowhere. It allows your brain a breather. It can also allow your whole body a breather as your physiological processes get out of whack when you are constantly stressed. Your thoughts bring about this stress so allowing your thoughts to wander to something more pleasant is not being in denial, it is helping yourself.

If you are in one bad relationship after another, always choosing the “wrong” person and you don’t stop to take a look at what is going on then you are most likely in denial. There is something going on with you, most likely a self esteem problem, attachment issue or even unresolved trauma from abuse. Others around you can probably see it and may have mentioned it to you, but you may continue to blame the “wrong” people that you have involved yourself with, seeing it as their problem, not yours. But somewhere down deep you know there is a problem.

If you go to a therapist, receive help and insight into your issues but need a break from processing it all so you go skiing, that is a distraction. If you are given therapeutic homework and it becomes too painful or overwhelming so you turn on the TV, that is also a distraction and that is fine. It does not mean you are going into denial. If however, you put the homework away for good and never go back to the therapist, you probably have retreated into denial.

Having the arsenal of self soothing techniques available to you is the key to keeping you moving forward through difficult issues in your life. Adding these is a better solution than adding behaviors designed to hide, dodge or isolate yourself and your behaviors. One gives you a quality of life you deserve and create constructively, the other clearly brings more distress, loneliness and negativity.

So if you have a difficult issue to face, bone up on your self-soothing abilities, find things that will distract you in a positive way when called upon, form a social support system and dive in, life is too short to allow dysfunctional issues to get in the way of  the life you want.

Denial vs. Distraction in Mental Health-Are They Different?

Audrey Sherman, Ph.D.

Dr. Audrey Sherman is a licensed psychologist, coach and the author of the book Dysfunction Interrupted-How to Quickly Overcome Depression, Anxiety and Anger Starting Now. Her expertise is in defining, describing and transforming dysfunctional behavior and thought patterns learned in childhood or beyond that keep you anxious, depressed, angry, stuck in unhappy and unproductive relationships, jobs and more. Dr. Sherman developed the Dysfunctional Patterns Quiz and other free resources to help you determine the effects of these on your life. She works with individuals, conducts live and online workshops and trains others in her programs. To learn more about Dr. Sherman, you can visit her website.

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APA Reference
Sherman, A. (2017). Denial vs. Distraction in Mental Health-Are They Different?. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 15, 2020, from


Last updated: 28 Sep 2017
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