Have you ever felt a strong, almost instinctual, urge to avoid something that other people seem to be okay with? Does it occur time and again in the same place or in a similar situation? This feeling may be a sign that you are dealing with repression. A term originally coined by Sigmund Freud, relating to a form of forgotten memory that is awakened by an outside force, with meaning that has evolved over time just as psychology has.
Definition of Repression
Today’s definition of repression may be something you recognize well. “Repression is the natural tendency to avoid or inhibit certain unwanted, undesirable, or upsetting impulses, thoughts, or feelings,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a psychologist. “In the realm of psychology, repression is generally viewed as a specific psychological defense mechanism wherein the individual unconsciously suppresses thoughts, feelings, or desires that are perceived as unacceptable or undesirable.”
Types of Repression
Based on your awareness of the event or emotion you’re holding onto, there are two types of repression you could be dealing with. “Primary repression refers to no knowledge of the content, whereas secondary repression happens when the material surfaces, and then the person tries to shove it back down,” says Nicole Arzt, a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Marc Lener M.D., psychiatrist and CEO and founder of the Singula Institute, adds, “The distinction between the conscious and subconscious has to do with the degree of awareness that we have of those memories, particularly when they are triggered by events in our lives that have an appearance of similarity.” He explains that the subconscious mind holds on to an immense amount of information archived from each day of our life. The amount of memories and information your brain continually absorbs is impossible to fully emotionally process in the moment, and thus certain parts of your experience will be unresolved and repressed without your conscious intent.
Examples of Repression
In both forms, primary and secondary, repression can impact a person’s life in myriad ways. “Repression can emerge in dreams, intrusive thoughts, anxiety, and relationship problems,” says Arzt.
If the issue causing repression is left undealt with, a person is likely to feel — and react — as if the remembered instance is currently happening instead of thinking of it as an event in the past. This can lead to that person completely denying its existence or minimizing the situation.
“If the person remains in denial, it can lead to the person ‘acting out,’ as if the current experience was a replay of the childhood experience,” says Lener. “This acting out behavior can cause a great deal of stress for the person and others close to the person, and can be seen in personal and professional relationships.”
Impact of Repression
Anyone dealing with repression will end up spending a great deal of mental energy working to avoid flashbacks, triggers, or discussion around the core topic the person is repressing, says Carrie C. Mead, a psychotherapist. She explains that a person may be aware of doing this at times, for instance if they avoid a street where they witnessed a terrible accident. However, repression can also be subconscious — such as in the case of avoiding fireworks or loud sounds without acknowledging or even being aware of what memory they trigger.
Without treatment, repression can morph into a series of other issues. “If repression continues, a person may experience symptoms like severe anxiety, unhappiness, irritability, and hypervigilance,” says Mead. “Bodily manifestations can also occur like physical pain at the sight of [what caused the trauma], constipation from holding [the memory] in, or neck aches from feeling the weight [of the repressed memory].”
While you should not let repression get out of control or control your life, it is a reasonable, and even necessary, response to trauma. “For example, a person who has suffered from intense trauma may not have the mental or emotional capacity to process the events of the trauma,” says Manly. “As such, the mind may — very wisely — repress some or all details of the traumatic incident until the individual has the necessary emotional support and stability to begin to process the traumatic experience.”
Manly acknowledges the negative impact of repression along with the positive, “A person who represses information about domestic violence may become involved in serial destructive relationships due to suppression of the negative experiences and the psychological impact,” she says. “In cases such as this, repressing the incidents can lead to repetitive behaviors that are unhealthy. Given the often challenging and sensitive nature of repression, it can be very important to work with a skilled psychotherapist when repression is affecting one’s mental health.”
How to Treat Repression
When the time comes to talk about your repression, the cliche, “the only way out is through,” couldn’t be more accurate. How to get to the other side varies based on how aware you are of the core issue. You may be able to work through it on your own if you’ve previously worked with a therapist to identify the problem or if you have an unusual amount of clarity on your challenges. However, seeing a qualified mental health professional can give you the tools to properly deal with the root cause and work through it in a healthy, lasting manner.
“The solution to repression, denial, and acting-out behaviors is to go through an emotional process that is guided by a skilled therapist who can help the person bring these memories to greater conscious awareness, such that the person can choose his or her own way of handling situations when these intense emotional memories are triggered,” says Lener. Together with a therapist, you can overcome this block and leave repression behind.Tapping into these triggering memories, after a long time repressing them, can be frightening. It’s important to remember progress doesn’t happen overnight and a qualified mental health professional will be able to safely and smoothly guide you as you process these buried thoughts. Once you’re able to identify and work through them, you may find that the power of these repressed memories shrinks. The impact of repressed memories does not have to last forever, all you need to do is take the first step towards overcoming them. If you’re interested in addressing issues with repression, online therapy is a convenient, and inexpensive way to get started today.