Confronting Repressed Memories
Our minds sift through mounds of external stimuli and build networks of useful information for our daily lives. When faced with traumatic events, our minds can push back memories that are too painful to deal with at the time. However, these events can linger and show up in some nasty ways.
These memories are called repressed memories: memories of traumatic events stored away but not easily accessed.
What are repressed memories?
Our minds function on separate levels: the conscious and the unconscious. The conscious mind is our daily thinking mind. It’s activated when performing tasks, processing new information, or experiencing something new.
Think of learning to drive a car. At first, you’re hypervigilant because it’s a new activity. Your mind processes this new information and stores it until it becomes second nature. The conscious mind stores this information where it’s easily accessible.
Repressed memories reside in our unconscious minds. This is where our dreams and fears originate, according to Dr. Sigmund Freud. When we face experiences too hard to deal with, the mind can lock away these memories.
Repressed memories differ because they may be locked in our unconscious minds and cannot be readily accessed. Our mind creates barriers to prevent us from accessing these memories, such as defense mechanisms and phobias.
How do repressed memories affect everyday life?
Repressed memories can show up in the present in subtle ways. People who’ve felt abuse may avoid social interactions or stress-inducing activities. Their personalities may take shape and develop over time to mimic these aversions to trauma.
Repressed memories can also develop loss of sleep, low self-esteem, dissociation, and social anxiety. Phobias, defense mechanisms, depression, and borderline personality disorders could also be attributed to repressed memories.
Sensory information may also trigger physical reactions. Depictions of violence, loud sounds, even smells could be potential triggers. Fireworks might induce panic attacks in someone who lived through armed conflict, for example.
Does repressed memory therapy work?
The most accurate answer is: it’s unclear.
Repressed memories are a highly-contested subject in the field of psychology. Mental health professionals believe repressed memory therapy helps, while researchers argue that they cause unexpected consequences.
Dr. Freud theorized that hypnosis can access repressed memories in the unconscious mind. Patients enter a suggestible state with verbal stimuli and guided imagery to access the subconscious mind and are asked to recount traumatic events.
Hypnosis is far from perfect. Psychotherapists claim hypnosis yields several unintended consequences. In a highly suggestible state, patients are vulnerable to false memories implanted by therapists. Even if these memories are accessed, there is no sure way of knowing whether the memories were actively suppressed or just forgotten. Also, the memory may not even be the patients’ and can be merely something they heard from someone else.
For these reasons, hypnosis and other traditional repressed memory therapies have been discredited by the Psychotherapist community.
But that doesn’t mean help is not available. There are many types of therapies available to you that can help you understand whether your repressed memories are causing present symptoms. These therapies also have been well-researched to prove their efficacy. Here are just a few.
Psychodynamics can help patients resolve their unresolved trauma that may unlock repressed memories. Therapists gain a patient’s trust and over time and guides a patient to acknowledge and overcome their trauma. Psychodynamic therapy isn’t as intrusive as hypnosis and has dozens of studies to support its efficacy.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
EMDR also gives patients a safe space to work through their trauma. Patients are given visual cues while recalling traumatic events. Patients gain relief from severe symptoms and begin to interpret their memories and eventually move past them.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT is a form of therapy that focuses on behavior and ways of thinking. Therapists that practice CBT work with patients to identify patterns of thought and behavior and teaching coping abilities to better deal with their symptoms. CBT can be very effective at gaining self-awareness and building confidence to tackle present and future problems.
What should you do if you believe you have repressed memories?
If you believe you have repressed memories, consider seeking help from a licensed therapist. BetterHelp has thousands of licensed therapists that can assist you.
Here are some tips for the first visit.
- Tell your therapist or counselor you suspect you have repressed memories
- If you experience any of the symptoms below, mention them
- Somatic symptoms such as unexplained aches, stomach pains, severe headaches
- Low-self esteem
- Nightmares, insomnia, fatigue
- Write down any behaviors or thoughts that seem unusual to mention, or any triggers that recently occurred.
These tips should help you get started, but a therapist will guide you every step of the way.
The role of the therapist is never to create or reinforce false beliefs patients may be feeling. Their role is to be neutral. Therapists guide patients to reach their conclusions and allow them to interpret their own experiences.
They’re there to clarify and look objectively at your suspicions and provide alternate explanations. They should never suggest your symptoms come from repressed memories without more information.
If you feel you have memories you can’t remember, or have symptoms you can’t explain, talk to a therapist today.
We hope you enjoyed this post in collaboration with BetterHelp.
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Marie Miguel has been a writing and research expert for nearly a decade, covering a variety of health- related topics. Currently, she is contributing to the expansion and growth of a free online mental health resource with BetterHelp.com. With an interest and dedication to addressing stigmas associated with mental health, she continues to specifically target subjects related to anxiety and depression.