“I’m never sick,” Sally said. She was nearly 70-years-old and said she had never even had a cold. She sat off to the side while her husband, Bob, was reclined on the ER gurney. Bob had been feeling weak for several days and went to his physician for a checkup. Routine laboratory studies showed that his red blood cells, white blood cells and platelet counts were low. Bob’s bone marrow was likely being overtaken by a type of cancer called MDS – myelodysplastic syndrome.
Sally claimed to be invincible, but was she living in the real world? Bob had been a smoker most of his life and had heart and lung disease. Had she been immune to the impact of his disease throughout their marriage? Would Bob’s new diagnosis of cancer make her sick? Illness spreads insidiously and is generally contagious. Sally seemed gripped by her denial.
Denial is a functional coping tool that is often necessary for caregiving. It can lead you to believe that MDS is not life-threatening and that it won’t affect you. Denial can allows caregivers to pretend that the medication is not chemotherapy and that their patients will get better. You might not even see the toll that the medication or disease process is taking on your patient. Denial works well until the situation is no longer manageable and your patient ends up in the ER.
The following four tips will help you work through and better understand the coping tool of denial:
Denial is a way of coping with stress. The thought of being under stress annoys most people. It puts you in a bind. If you admit to being overwhelmed as a caregiver, you may be asked to give up some control over the situation. You need to remain strong so as to not appear weak and make your patient worry more. You might spend most of your day pretending that you are fine, while suffering in silence.
Stress is a sickness that eats at you from inside. It suppresses your immune system and triggers inflammation in the body. It can cause a heart attack and other disease. Stress is a silent killer that sometimes masks as hypertension, headaches, shortness of breath, or abdominal pain. When people just don’t feel well for no particular reason, stress is likely the cause.
Because of the strength of denial, stress may not be as obvious. Observe how you respond to others who might question the amount of stress you’re under. Do you tend to laugh it off or protest the question? Are you open to having the conversation about your struggles? Are you doubling down and compounding your stress? What example are you setting for your patient?
How might you deal with denial? While dealing with stress, the inclination is to bury your head in the sand and ignore it. However, caregivers who look after patients rarely get a break from experiencing one upset after another. With any chronic illness, there is always something not right that needs to be handled.
While on duty, caregivers often confront various types of emergencies. This is the best opportunity for you as a caregiver to face the facts. How manageable is the situation? Nevermind how it was before, how is it now? What resources are available that you’re not using? How much is denial stopping you from accessing them?
Your credibility as a caregiver becomes suspect if you’re in denial. As Sally claimed she was never sick, can she be taken seriously? Can she be trusted to know how to handle Bob’s illness when it worsens? Does she picture her state of heath as being the same or different from Bob’s. You are no longer in denial when you can truly acknowledge your patient’s illness and stress as being your own.
Denial is a form of imaginary thinking. Imagination allows your thoughts to run wild. As a caregiver, an act of careless abandonment of your patient is out of the question. Yet letting go of stress serves your patient. You may not feel the tension of caregiving, but are you able to relax and reward yourself? Do you have time to doing something good for yourself on a daily basis or are you too busy?
Caregiving can feel as though you’re trapped in a pressure cooker. This becomes an explosive situation and detrimental to those who engage with caregivers. Many people prefer not to be around those who are upset or dealing with stressful situation. Caregivers often feel like they are living in isolation.
If Sally prefers to perceive her health as different from Bob’s, she must create separation during the caregiving ordeal. Bob needs to respect and accommodate the time and care she needs for herself, including proper nutrition and exercise.
Caregivers often gravitate to comfort foods that are toxic to your system and cause more inflammation. You need to focus on eating more whole foods like vegetables and grains that fuel your body effectively and aids your sense of well-being.
Exercising and stretching helps identify tension in your body. You can no longer deny stress once you experience being inflexible or out of breath. Exercise allows stress to move out of your body and releases endorphins that help you feel better.
Making time to do the things you love lifts your heart. Whether it’s shopping or going to a movie, attending church or a support group, taking a walk or a trip, you deserve to reward yourself. As you begin to count your blessings each day, you lessen the feeling that time is being taken away from you. If you need more time, you are not taking enough time for yourself to enjoy life as a caregiver.
Denial can allow you to better cope with stressful situations. But it can sabotage your life and the care of your patient if you choose not to deal with the reality of being sick. Once you have a firm grip on the coping tool of denial, you can better manage your stress.