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Denial and Avoidance – the Silent Killers

We’ve all done it at some point in our lives. Perhaps last night the weatherman was calling for snow before morning. So, just in case he was actually right this time, you jumped in the car and ran out to the local market at the last moment possible. You know the drill.

This is evidenced by the fact that when you’re ready to check out at the store, you find yourself standing in line behind ten other people, all of whom were there doing the same exact thing you are – watching each one compare items in their carts against lists in their hands – enough food for two days, check. Salt to melt the ice on the front steps, check. Bottled water in case the electricity goes out, check. Unfortunately, no batteries left, maybe I shouldn’t have waited so long. You’ll try the hardware store on your way home – not there either. Next time, I’ll be more prepared and be the first one to the store.

To some extent, this is human nature. Sigmund Freud identified human strategies for coping years ago, though he focused mostly on mental illness, not mundane day-to-day decisions. But those of us who consider ourselves mentally “normal” are often given to the same sort of coping mechanisms. Intellectually, we know storms occur. We know exactly what kind of natural events our own necks of the woods are prone to. But often, we don’t react until it’s too late, until the natural catastrophe is knocking at our door.

Take Hurricane Katrina, for instance. New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin issued an evacuation warning on August 28, 2005. A million residents acknowledged that this was probably a good idea and fled the city. But Katrina had already evolved into a hurricane by this point, and she had been bearing down on the Gulf Coast since August 26 (2 days of nonstop news broadcasts). And yet, New Orleans residents stayed on until police enforced an evacuation. Roughly 100,000 people didn’t leave at all and more than 1,800 of them died – men, woman and children. More than 700 individuals are still missing and unaccounted for today.

Why didn’t they leave earlier? Why did 100,000 individuals never leave at all? While many could not because of money or physical capability, most of them were in denial. They listened to the news, but they simply could not accept that the storm was really going to be as serious as “they” claim – despite the media and police saying that this storm would leave death and devastation in it’s path. Those who did leave at the last moment fell victim to another coping mechanism: avoidance. They knew they should probably go, but they avoided taking decisive action until the penultimate moment, until circumstances literally forced them to acknowledge the threat and to act.

It’s a big, bad world out there (sometimes), and we’re all prone to avoidance and denial to some extent. Sometimes it’s relatively harmless. Other times, it can be a killed. Let’s side step the pleasantries for a moment and talk about one very interesting topic – our “gut instinct” or our intuition (we’ll have more in-depth articles coming out on this shortly). But before we do that, let us first differentiate avoidance and denial. Avoidance is being cognitively aware of something and choosing to focus attention on something else. Denial, from a psychological standpoint, is the flat out disbelief that something can happen. For example, a parent that doesn’t want to talk about child abduction may avoid the topic because it’s too scary to think about. However, other parents may say, “it’ll never happen here, so why even waste time thinking about it?” They’re in denial. They truly believe the possibility does not exists. That, my friends, is very dangerous situation. Denial commonly occurs when people just can’t possibly imagine (because they have no frame of reference) that something will happen. Back to our Katrina example, those in denial just couldn’t possibly fathom that their family could die from this storm – it wouldn’t happen to them. Yet, we still can’t learn from those 1800 people.

Today, there was a child violently abducted, emotionally tortured and sexually assaulted – she is 6 years old. Can you imagine anything that those parents wouldn’t now do to prevent this from happening? Can you believe that there are parents out there who choose not to talk to their children about this? They choose not to teach their children about the dangers – it’s too scary, I don’t want them to live in fear. Imagine what you would do if your child was abducted, your spouse disappeared, your loved one vanished. It can happen – it does happen – denial and avoidance are secret killers and we can’t allow ourselves to fall victim anymore.

Sometimes, avoidance and denial can have more far-reaching and deadly repercussions. Consider this: Nearly 1 out of every 21,000 people in America was murdered in 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. This only accounts for those individuals who tragically lost their lives to violence. Almost 1.5 million other individuals survive incidents of violent crime every year. Yet many of us deal with these potential threats the same way we deal with natural disasters. It could happen, but it probably won’t. Do you buy insurance? Do financially protect yourself from extremely low probability occurrences? We buy life insurance, car insurance, property insurance, travel insurance, etc., etc., etc. Do you know that 30% of travelers buy insurance for their trips, yet 90% of the reasons we need it are not covered? It’s true. Why do people avoid and deny things of far more value? Our children, our well-being, our lives.

When you think about it, preparing your family against the potential of violence is far easier than battling hundreds of other shoppers the night before a storm. Even just talking about the possibility of violence goes a long way. Don’t allow your kids to believe it’s something that only happens on TV or in the movies. You’re not jading them or destroying their innocence by making them aware. You are empowering them! The alternative? Believe that violence only happens to other people and maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

It still pains me to think that I have friends whose children don’t know their address, their phone number or what to do when a stranger approaches.

There are innumerable things you can teach your family about being safe. Of course, you know the basics. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t approach unknown cars. If anyone tries to grab your child, he should hold onto his bike for all he’s worth and not let go. But the more knowledgeable you are in the ways of self-defense and protecting yourself against predators, the more it is that you’ll be able to help your family. Take classes. Scour the internet. Go to the library. Learn. Then impart what you know. Ask yourself this one question – is it worth the risk to not teach them?

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