Denial and its deadly role in surviving a heart attack

by Carolyn Thomas       @HeartSisters

Dr. John Leach is one of the world’s leading experts on what’s known as survival psychology. He likes to tell a story about London’s King’s Cross underground station fire in 1987. As the fire spread, trains kept on arriving in the station, and hurried commuters headed right into the disaster.

Officials unwittingly directed passengers onto escalators that carried them straight into the flames. Many commuters followed their routines despite the smoke and fire, almost oblivious to the crush of people trying to escape – some actually in flames! Thirty-one people perished in the King’s Cross fire, and incredibly, the Underground staff never sprayed a single fire extinguisher or spilled a drop of water on the fire.

Dr. Leach, who teaches at Lancaster University, has a name for this phenomenon. It’s called the incredulity response. He explains that people simply don’t believe what they’re seeing. So they go about their business, engaging in what’s known as normalcy bias which is incredibly powerful and sometimes even hazardous. People can act as if everything is okay, and they underestimate the seriousness of danger. Some experts call this analysis paralysis.

What he’s describing is precisely how I felt while undergoing two weeks of increasingly debilitating cardiac symptoms before being finally hospitalized. Although all signs clearly pointed to a heart attack – crushing chest pain, nausea, sweating and pain radiating down my left arm – I seemed fatalistically determined to go about my life acting as if everything was fine, just fine until – when symptoms became truly unbearable – I finally returned to the Emergency Department that had sent me home two weeks earlier with an acid reflux misdiagnosis.

Dr. Leach explains how my treatment-seeking delay came about:

“During a crisis, most of us will quite simply be stunned and bewildered. We’ll find that our reasoning is significantly impaired and that thinking is difficult. We’ll behave in a reflexive, almost automatic or mechanical manner. We’ll feel sick, lethargic, numb. Our hearts may race.

“And we’ll experience perceptual narrowing or tunnel vision. We’ll barely hear people around us. The brain has limited storage, so when we face sudden threats, it pushes other things out in order to process them. If we’re anxious or worried, our decision-making skills temporarily disappear.’”

Apparently, I am not alone in being too “stunned and bewildered” to comprehend what’s actually happening in mid-heart attack.

Denial that something bad is happening to us is almost universal, even among individuals with excellent training, according to Laurence Gonzales, writing in National Geographic’s How To Survive (Almost) Anything: 14 Survival Skills. He writes:

“It is in our nature to believe that the weather will improve, that we’ll find our way again, that the fire alarm doesn’t really mean ‘fire!’, or that night won’t fall on schedule.”

He cites this story from a retired Los Angeles police officer named David Klinger, from his book called Into the Kill Zone. One night, while moonlighting as a bank guard, Klinger saw three masked figures with assault rifles run through the foyer of the bank.

His first reactions:

  • 1. the local SWAT team is practising
  • 2. they are dressed up for Halloween

Klinger later said, “It was just disbelief!” (Mind you, he did recover from his denial in time to shoot at the crooks).

Denial plays a large role in many wilderness accidents, Gonzales adds. A lost hiker in denial will continue walking even after losing the trail, assuming he’ll regain it eventually. He’ll press on – and become increasingly lost – even as doubt slowly creeps in. Gonzales offers this advice:

“Learn to recognize your tendency to see things not as they are, but how you wish them to be – and you’ll be better able to avoid such crises.”

For those whose physical symptoms indicate they might be having a heart attack, denial can be a fatal condition.

The five most dangerous words associated with chest pain are: “Maybe it will go away!”

We know that, particularly for women, treatment-seeking delay can result in demonstrably deadly outcomes.  If you believe that there is even the slightest chance your symptoms mean a cardiac event is imminent, call 911 and take one full-strength aspirin immediately.

According to the Alberta Health Services, denial even after a heart attack has happened is a common defense mechanism used to reduce anxiety by reducing the threat. It is normal, necessary and healthy. But when it’s prolonged, it becomes a problem.  Early on, you may be in denial while still in the hospital recovering from a cardiac event if you say things like:

  • “Well, doctors do make mistakes.”
  • “It’s not possible.”
  • “This couldn’t be happening to me.”

Here are some other behaviours that suggest denial after your discharge from hospital:

  1. You start to smoke again.
  2. You stop taking your cardiac medications.
  3. You over-exercise to prove something to yourself.
  4. You maintain the same pace of activity as pre-heart attack.
  5. You continue to indulge yourself in a diet that is not heart-healthy.
  6. You become over-involved in other people’s problems to avoid your own.

This denial is not at all surprising. Heart patients are booted out of hospital surprisingly quickly post-op with little or no discharge planning, scheduled home nursing follow up, mental health counselling, or medical support other than the ‘make an appointment with your doctor in three weeks” advice. 

A report in the Archives of Internal Medicine showed that hospital length of stay after a heart attack plummeted from an average of 12 days in the mid-1980s to less than half by the year 2000.

I have observed nurses and doctors who treat cardiac patients as if they’ve just had an appendectomy or other acute care procedure that has now “fixed” the problem forever.

Everything went fine. You’re fine. Now go home and have a nice life. We need to free up your bed for the next patient. 

So what can you do if you’re a patient in denial?

  1. Research! Research! Research! Find out as much as you can from credible sources about your diagnosis. Mayo Clinic is a great place to start.
  2. Listen to all medical advice.  Really listen.
  3. Listen to your body (pay attention to any distressing signs and symptoms).

Dr. Leach reminds us that some people prefer not to think about unpleasant possibilities in case we somehow make them happen.

For example, do you check under your seat for a life jacket when you board a flight? Or does part of you worry that thinking about something going wrong with the aircraft could tempt fate?

“You don’t need to speculate about everything that could go wrong at any time. But it does help to pay attention!”

He claims that we all experience brain freeze to some degree when we encounter a serious threat. What’s important is the speed at which we recover from it.

And here’s a practical coping tip:  after a severe shock, someone may offer to make you a cup of tea. It’s actually far better to make it yourself, advises Dr. Leach. Going through the motions actually prompts your brain to function to co-ordinate movements. Once one area of the brain gets going, it helps to kickstart the others, allowing you to shake off this incredulity response.

And what if there’s no time to make tea?  Dr. Leach suggests:

“Running through the alphabet in your head should help!”

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about heart patients and denial in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (where you can use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

See also:

Can denial ever be a good thing for heart patients?

Knowing & Going: act fast when heart attack symptoms hit

Downplaying symptoms: just pretend it’s NOT a heart attack

The myth of the “Hollywood Heart Attack” for women

Am I having a heart attack?

Why hearing the diagnosis hurts worse than the heart attack

How we adapt after a heart attack may depend on what we believe this diagnosis means

Which one’s right? Eight ways that patients and families can view heart disease

Six personality coping patterns that influence how you handle heart disease

Surviving the crisis: the first stage of heart attack recovery

The new country called heart disease

Read this Newsweek report on Dr. Leach and what it takes to survive a crisis.


7 thoughts on “Denial and its deadly role in surviving a heart attack

  1. I have survived several heart attacks. If you have a heart attack, and you pray, PRAY FOR DEATH, because surviving is the most degrading, horrible, altering, painful, physically debilitating, mentally destructive, cruel thing. You are nothing more than a meat sack, rotting in the sun after a heart attack. Your personality will change, you will become more self centered, cruel, hurtful and less relevant every moment.

    Why? Because you are supposed to be dead. Then the docs lie to you, put machines in you that nearly kill you every time they go off. They do more harm than good. It is 2015, my first heart attack was in 1998. I have degraded to the point of begging daily for death. If you have a heart attack, make sure to beg for the overdose to put you down. You will be better off. you will not have to suffer the humiliation of watching your own demise.


    1. Gifford, It’s very upsetting to read about your experience here. I’m sorry you’ve gone through this. It is simply not true, however, that all those who survive a heart attack are somehow “supposed to be dead”. Although I live with ongoing debilitating cardiac symptoms every day, I still figure I survived my “widowmaker” heart attack because I’m “supposed to be ALIVE” now – based on results. I hope you will be able to see a good cardiologist and also a good therapist; together they can help you manage these frightening thoughts that are making you pray for death.


  2. “They act as if everything is okay, and they underestimate the seriousness of danger….” Yep, that was definitely me for several days leading up to my hospitalization. Kept chalking up my increasing symptoms to stress or just something weird I must have eaten…. Looking back, I now see how stupid that kind of denial was – my heart attack could have killed me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “…Dr. Leach reminds us that some people prefer not to think about unpleasant possibilities in case we somehow make them happen…”

    This may explain the serious concerns over patient compliance I’ve been reading about lately, specifically those who stop taking their prescription medicines even though these may mean the difference between good health and death. Maybe they’re living in the La-La Land of denial.

    Great article, thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Carolyn:

    Excellent post, serious issues.

    I have just been astonished at the lack of follow through or telephone follow up after such serious events as a heart attack or any kind of major surgery.

    Some (younger) extroverted entrepreneur out there could put together a telephone follow up service for hospitals and doctors. It would be wonderful service that would saves lives (and money, for the insurance companies.)

    Glad to know that brain freeze is not just an Alaska winter phenomenon.

    Liked by 1 person

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