Denial, Rationalization and Anxiety

Dr. Kleiner Health Guide
  • Often, when something makes us anxious, we try to avoid it. If moving our belongings makes us anxious, we hire movers. If doing our taxes overwhelms us, we hire an accountant. These are healthy alternatives to doing anxious tasks.


    What if we do not have an alternative method for completing an anxiety-provoking task? We may choose to simply ignore it. This is more common than we realize. Say, for example, we are anxious about paying our bills. We may “postpone” doing them. This may seem like an adaptive response – and in the short run, it may be. Writing checks and peering into our bank account, for example, causes us anxiety. So we ignore it, compartmentalize it, and put it away for now. It works. We go to sleep thinking about other things, we talk to friends or our grandchildren or watch a movie and forget about that which makes us anxious. In the short run we breathe and relax. If it is unconscious, it is a defense we commonly refer to as “denial.”

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    We have all experienced “putting off” an uncomfortable phone call. Maybe it is a call to someone who intimidates us, or someone who has authority over us, like our boss. Perhaps we are just naturally conflict-averse and avoid uncomfortable conversations. We put it away for now and rationalize why doing it tomorrow or next week tactically make more “sense.” Here we consciously choose to believe that doing it later is a better plan. This is called rationalization.


    Of course, we all know what happens over time. We begin to think about our finances or that phone call.  We ruminate about it when we least expect it – perhaps at night or while trying to read a newspaper. We are doing fine, until we are broadsided with the fact that we are over a month late with our bills. Was the trade-off worth it?


    There are many reasons and causes for anxiety. Here we are talking about anxiety that results from task accumulation and anxiety associated with outstanding obligations. Sources of anxiety are complex, but no doubt learning to hold and deal with a certain amount of anxiety is an important life-skill. Psychotherapy can be very helpful in this regard. Some anxiety is simply a part of life.  The right psychotherapy can help us increase our ability to tolerate anxiety, allowing us to make the phone call, pay the bills, or study for the exam.  A type of psychotherapy called insight-oriented psychotherapy can help us understand why we are afraid to do certain things and help us arbitrate and get past those fears. When we are able to assess the challenges around us – large and small -- when we are able to understand and diffuse the anxiety and therefore accomplish those scary tasks, we may have to tolerate some anxiety in the short run. In the long run we have the potential to lead less anxious lives.


Published On: November 20, 2008