Friday, January 12, 2007

What is the difference between denial and shock?

This question arises from conversations I have recently had with folk both in the parish and at the hospital. I have had my own experience of both shock and denial, and you may be surprised by what you will read me write about them.

Denial - especially the kind related to illness and death, but other kinds too - is often if not usually spoken of as something negative that just cannot be avoided and that we should get out of as quickly as possible so we can get on to the good part, the healing, and move on. The fact is that in nature many things are as they are for a good or several good reasons.

Denial is somewhat related to shock, and it will be helpful to have a better appreciation of what denial is all about if we look at shock first. The shock I want to examine here is that physical state we go into that shuts down our feelings when there is trauma and the feelings are too overwhelming and could actually kill us. Shock allows us to go on for a while and as we go along in the process of the aftermath following our traumatic experience, we try as well as we can to carry on with life and as we do so begin to want to relate to others again, and we slowly begin looking at the experience, just fleeting glances at first.

Then, as we are able, our organism senses this and thaws out the tangle of emotions connected to the shock but only a little bit at a time, and so this emotional flood comes over us in waves, just to give us a taste or glimpse at first, then shuts down again. Something triggers these waves of emotions, we taste them more intensely and deeply each time, and they shut down again so we don't get damaged by the sheer power of them. This process accelerates and intensifies as our organism senses we're up to it. Faith in God, hope in his grace, and love lubricate this process incredibly.

Denial is like shock but different. Whereas shock shuts down our affectivity, denial shuts down our will, our willingness to look at, think about, admit, imagine, remember, visualize or even acknowledge the source of our pain, the traumatic event itself. The purpose is similar - our own protection and self preservation - and it enables us to go on functioning until we have enough energy, stamina, and vitality to begin looking at the awful truth.

When we consider then that both denial and shock, and other mechanisms like them, are really gifts from God, woven into the fabric of our being, to help us cope with the powerful events of life, then we can look at them and approach them with more reverence and appreciation for what they are designed to give us and allow us to do. Everything that is written or said about both of these by way of warnings applies to the danger of remaining in these states longer than we need to, as a kind of unhealthy appetite for the anesthetic effect, much in the same way one can develop a dependence or appetite for excessive alcohol or drugs.

There is great wisdom in the Jewish Scriptures that is applicable here:

"There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak. A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace." Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) 3:1-8.

“Were not our hearts burning within us as He talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?” Luke 24:32

«Notre cœur n’était-il pas tout brûlant au-dedans de nous, quant Il nous parlait en chemin, quand Il nous ouvrait les Écritures?» Luc 24 :32

l’abbé / Fr. Gilles A. Surprenant

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous11:45 AM

    Thank You Fr Gilles for explaining denial and shock and the difference between the two. Having just experienced both recently at the sudden death of my mother, I could not understand why and what I was feeling. Your article has shed light on the matter and now I can allow myself to feel. Thanks and God Bless You.