Denial allows people to take time to get used to a new situation and not focus on fears of what might happen down the road.
“Denial gets a bad rap,” said David Rintell, EdD, a psychologist at Partners MS Center at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., “but it can be very useful and is sometimes necessary.”
Denial is a very basic defense mechanism, explained Barbara Giesser, MD, clinical director of the UCLA MS Program. “In the process of adapting to chronic illness, denial can be a useful first step in the process of acceptance.”
In fact, said Dr. Rintell, people who are unable to use denial may become disabled by anxiety. “Hopelessness is destructive—it reduces motivation, and makes us less likely to adhere to treatment,” he said. “I encourage people to let go of the worst-case scenario and continue to live life, go to work, enjoy relationships and take some time to get used to having MS. Loved ones can help by giving their diagnosed friend or family member permission to deny and therefore cope.”
However, said Dr. Giesser, denial doesn’t work long-term. “You have to move past denial in order to treat and make plans,” she cautioned. “If instead of accepting your diagnosis, you believe the doctors made a mistake, you might not avail yourself of appropriate therapy for both disease and symptom management.”
To develop a sensible perspective, it’s important to get as much information as possible. “Find a neurologist you can work with, who allows you to be active in your own care,” Dr. Giesser advised. “It’s less scary when you feel empowered.”
Dr. Rintell also suggested speaking with other people with MS or a professional with relevant experience. “After the initial shock, most people learn that MS can be a difficult illness, but they realize that they will be OK with it. Being optimistic turns out to be realistic.”