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Denial After a Brain Injury

By: Guest Author - Aimee Mortensen Last Updated: January 30, 2019

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Alina Fong

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Denial After a Brain Injury

Mental Health Support After a Brain Injury

What is Denial?

Denial is a stage in the grief process. Many times it just doesn’t feel real. We may believe we’re imagining the pain or trauma we’re currently experiencing. It’s a bad dream, a nightmare. We’re in shock and we’re anxious to wake up and go back to our normal reality.

As you read this article, if you have the desire to stop reading...don’t! That’s denial.

You may have recently sustained a brain injury. Your traumatic brain injury or concussion may have come from a fall, sports accident, car accident, stroke or any number of things. One minute you’re you...and the next minute you’re not. The feelings of grief and loss are intense and confusing. You may tell yourself it’s fine, everything will be alright, you’ll get back to your old self with time. Just rest and take care of yourself. That’s what the doctors say. But, as time goes on, you may not go back to your old self. You continue to feel like you’re living someone else’s life. This, again, is denial.

You may find yourself pinching your arm just to see if you can feel it. And to see if you’re still you. You may feel numb.

I just want to be done with denial…

Coping with this stage is a challenge. There’s no way to move the process along, or slow it down. In fact, enjoy this stage, it protects you by making you think it’s all a dream. This is common. You’re not going crazy!

Traumatic brain injuries can cause numerous symptoms.

You may experience a variety of symptoms including, but not limited to:

  • Difficulty remembering things that are important to you
  • Struggling to remember words
  • You feel tired. All. The. Time.
  • You can’t focus and concentrate
  • You get headaches
  • You have difficulty sleeping, or you sleep way too much
  • You can’t do the same exercises you did before, your balance has been affected
  • You struggle recalling the things you read and it takes you longer to read
  • You can’t have the TV on while your children play, that’s overwhelming amounts of noise
  • You can’t process the things you hear and/or see
  • You don’t want to eat, or you eat way more than you normally do; significant appetite changes
  • you may experience depression and/or anxiety
  • Serious decrease in motivation, questioning if it’s worth it. Again, this isn’t really happening. Why put in the effort if I’ll wake up from this nightmare? Denial.
  • Your friends, or family members, frequently get frustrated with you. They may say things like “Your injury was 4 months ago! What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you remember? You seem different. You’re always upset. Are we ever going to get the old you back?” If they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.

You may have neuropsych testing done and are told you’re functioning above average. No accommodations are necessary, or even a possibility. You might even get an MRI of your brain and there is “nothing wrong”. You’re told you’ll adapt, or get used to it. This is your new reality. But, it can’t be! It just can’t. You have what’s frequently referred to as an invisible injury. You’re learning why.

How long does the Denial Stage last?

Denial can last minutes, or years. It can be constant or intermittent.

Denial protects us while we don’t feel capable of feeling anything else. When our mind can’t accept our reality, we pretend it isn’t our reality. 

I would encourage you to journal. Write down the things you’re struggling with, the things you’re doing well, and the things you’re grateful for. Write down everything you remember about your accident or injury. Monitor your improvement, changes, moods, and frustrations. Write out the feelings of denial, shock, confusion, and disbelief. In the future, nothing will give you more comfort than reading, from your own pen, the positive changes you’re making. If you’re not seeing positive changes, it will be great documentation for a doctor, or for Cognitive FX, to review when you seek treatment.

Reach out and talk to someone who gets it. There’s nothing more validating than talking to someone who truly gets it, truly understands, and won’t judge you for how you’re dealing with the new version of you. Don’t deal with this alone.

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