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COVID-19 and Adaptive Denial

COVID-19 and Adaptive Denial

I was working with a patient the other day, a mental health professional, who used a term that I hadn’t really heard before and certainly had never taken time to process. 

Adaptive Denial is a cognitive skill involving an unhelpful or unwanted urge, image or impulse to do something ineffective or, in my view, to NOT do something effective. 

I find this concept fascinating, especially the adaptive part as that terms takes me down the “rabbit hole” of evolution.

Given the current state of life in the midst of this pandemic, many of us feel like we should have the time, effort, and energy to invest, in ourselves, in our families, in our businesses, in our growth – to accomplish the goals that we may have set some time ago - to lose the weight, to ditch the sugar, to start the course, to paint the bedroom, etc. – yet, we find ourselves, now a month into this “time” not having followed through on this change.

We see this a lot with health changes. We KNOW and SEE every day on TV, on social media, in conversations with friends and family just how important our health is and we are grateful for this most precious and priceless asset. We KNOW that getting and staying healthy, managing stress, getting good, high-quality sleep, eating a nutrient-rich diet, replenishing your vital reserves / building resistance are ALL of utmost importance – especially NOW, during the worst global pandemic that we have seen in over 100 years. 

So, WHY are these changes SO hard to make – even when we know how truly beneficial and necessary they are? 

It’s not just willpower, or motivation, but actually our programmed biological and physiological protective mechanisms. Adaptive denial.

We know what we should be doing but our biology and physiology steers us differently. 

From an evolutionary standpoint, if you think back to the days of hunting and gathering, humans had to expend a lot of energy in order to survive, things like hunting and gathering food, finding and building shelter, walking or running long distances, and even fighting off predators in some cases. 

All of these things take energy, so we are biologically programmed to conserve and preserve energy (i.e. be lazy) when we’re not “working”. Sound familiar? 

Another major stressor, back in the day, was food scarcity – hence the empty store shelves in our current situation. We turn on our hoarder “gene”. But, look around the grocery store and what do you see? Is the produce section empty? Not really. It’s more of the calorie-dense, “reward” stimulating (i.e. sugar-laden) stuff. Comfort food, if you will. 

In modern days, this adaptive denial, can be a real issue / hinderance, simply because conserving energy and food scarcity are not truly an issue for most of us. We aren’t needing to physically escape predators and for the most part food is almost too abundant, especially the junk. Today, these two things can actually be a major recipe for disaster, leading to obesity, metabolic disease, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illness.     

Making the choice to change is the first step. But, as I’m sure you’ve experienced firsthand, it’s not enough on its own. It’s the execution that’s the challenge. Most of us KNOW what we should be doing yet we continue to do the same old thing, keeping us “safe” and sheltered in our “comfort zone” but also holding us back from true growth and evolution. Adaptive denial. 

This is why it’s so important to engage with folks who can help – true partners in health – a team that can help to create successful and lasting change. 

Successful and lasting are the key words there. Most people can change their behavior for short periods of time, but very few are successful long term. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 6 percent of Americans consistently engage in the top five health behaviors. And, while no one is perfect, this is a pretty alarming statistic.

It’s our mission to change this statistic and to shift the paradigm of “health care” – to true well-care and self-care. We do this by working with our patients / clients to co-create health.

So, if you’re struggling to create healthy change during COVID-19, know 3 things:

1)    That you’re not alone

2)    That you’re up against some powerful forces in your brain that make change hard (adaptive denial)

3)    That PIH is here for you as your Partner In Health to help you to create successful and lasting change when you are ready.