Why We Repress Memories

Girl with hands over her eyes

For those who study and practice psychology, there is a heated debate surrounding repressed memories. In particular, can or should they be recovered, and when recovered, are they actually accurate?

While some mental health practitioners such as psychologists find repressed memories can be recovered, researchers tend to be less likely to believe in their veracity. To better understand the complexity of this debate, it is important to dig into repressed memories overall.

What is Psychological Repression?

Repression serves as a defense mechanism where a person unconsciously pushes away painful or traumatic thoughts and memories. It often allows a person to live a relatively normal life while being seemingly unaware of the existence of such painful experiences.

It is important to note that repression is an unconscious act, and happens without a person intending to push certain memories away. In instances where a person consciously drives away distressing thoughts, it’s called suppression.

A History of Repression in Psychology

This concept was first realized by Sigmund Freud as part of his Psychoanalytic Theory. He believed that despite certain traumatic thoughts and memories existing without thought in a person’s unconscious mind, those experiences still have the power to influence a person’s day-to-day behavior.

Freud argued that symptoms of certain mental health disorders are actually repressed memories taking shape as a way of communicating a traumatic event without a person even realizing it. He used therapy to uncover a person’s repressed thoughts and feelings, believing it would help those memories leave the unconscious mind.

Here are common examples of repressed memories and how they potentially influence psychological functioning:

  • If a child experiences abuse by a parent or loved one, they may repress the distressing memories and become totally unaware of them as an adult. Later in life, those same memories of abuse may still impact a person’s behavior in different ways, such as making it difficult to form lasting relationships and build trust.
  • If a person experiences a near-drowning as a young toddler, they may develop a fear of water later on in life without any idea where the phobia came from.
  • “Freudian slips” are also considered examples of psychological repression — Freud believed any errors in speech were a result of something buried deep in a person’s unconscious mind.

Unconsciously Forgetting Experiences

One of the reasons why repression is hotly contested in the psychology field is due to modern-day research, which finds trauma can actually be forgotten (not simply repressed). Although people are wired to automatically store experiences — good and bad — into a memory, brains can “wall off” memories of particularly harmful experiences as a kind of self-protection. Extreme trauma disrupts long-term memory storage and explains why it can be difficult to remember horrible events.

In instances of extreme trauma, a person can actually forget the experience altogether. In fact, multiple studies find people who live through extreme trauma sometimes forget the painful incident, but the memory of the experience can return later in life in the form of sensations or emotions.

In some more extreme cases, it can involve a “flashback” where you feel as though you are reliving the memory entirely. In more extreme instances, this act of forgetting can develop into a dissociative disorder, such as amnesia and dissociative identity disorder.

Are Recovered Memories Trustworthy?

For those who accept repression and believe therapy can uncover unconscious thoughts and memories, there is also a debate surrounding the validity of recovered experiences. The argument is that memories can be distorted by both the person seeking therapy, and at times, the therapist leading the session.  This is referred to as the alse memory hypothesis, and it entails another person influencing the recall of repressed memories, resulting in the subject’s false recollections.

Opponents of using therapy to uncover repressed memories argue it is better to focus on recovery from current symptoms related to trauma, rather than trying to dig up the hidden memories that may (or may not) have led to them. This group also acknowledges that emotionally traumatic experiences are more easily remembered than non-traumatic memories, and it is likely that a person would not be able to completely repress those events to begin with.

Experts on both sides of the debate do agree on one thing, however. They recognize that abuse and trauma occurring during critical emotional developmental periods creates physical changes in a person’s brain, which can later develop into mental health disorders.

In one study, traumatic experiences that happened as early as in-utero and infancy can create significant risk factors for compromised mental health, including a negative impact on self-esteem and a person’s ability to form trusting relationships later on in life.

Treating Repressed or Traumatic Memories

Whether or not you believe in repressed memories and the ability to recover them, formal psychological treatments have been proven effective in handling forgotten, traumatic memories.

If you are seeking therapy for traumatic memories (whether recovered or not), a therapist’s role is to help individuals unpack long-term emotional issues and gain control over their day-to-day life. Many therapists specializing in recovering memories of abuse leverage trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, taking particular care to be respectful throughout the journey.

While in therapy, a person often seeks out ways to get relief from ongoing anxiety, lingering memories of abuse, nightmares, panic attacks, and intense fears. In some cases, a person may want to better understand past experiences and get rid of feelings of guilt — something long-term psychotherapy can help support. While there is no silver bullet to overcoming trauma, there are certainly ways to manage its daily impact.

The debate surrounding repressed memories and whether they can or should be recovered continues, but the science behind treating symptoms of traumatic memories reinforces the value of therapy as a support.

As studies have shown, memories are complex and can unconsciously be forgotten if the experience is particularly harmful. They can also develop into mental health disorders if left untreated and ignored. If nothing else, it is easy to agree that traumatic memories have a far-reaching psychological impact, fueling professionals to continue to study them.

Published by

Jessica DuBois-Maahs

Contributor