The experience and aftermath of traumatic events can affect your memory. But can the memory of a trauma really be repressed?
The repressed memory theory focuses on a traumatic event that a person may not remember at all or only after the event.
Repressed memories are memories that cannot be easily accessed consciously, he says Saba Harouni LurieLicensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Art Therapist and Founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles.
Recalling a repressed memory “could begin with dream-like memories,” says the psychologist Pauline Peck, Ph.D. Itis “something that doesdoesn’t feel like a coherent narrative. Perhaps you have memorabilia or a strong sense of feeling.‘”
“Trauma is stored as a fragment, not as a linear story,‘ says Pick. “Sometimes you just have to be curious and above all supported so that you feel like you can discover everything that could be there.”
The concept of repressed memory originated with Sigmund Freud, whose understanding of human psychology was heavily focused on the unconscious and subconscious.
Freud developed the idea of repression while working with psychoanalysis. Freud believed that repression was a defense mechanism in the face of traumatic experiences.
Originally Freud’s theory of repression thought of repression as a response to traumatic stress, then termed “hysteria.” According to Freud, this could occur with excessive stress, even if it is not considered physically threatening or traumatic.
However, Freud’s theory of repression is highly controversial and remains unproven.
The terms repression and suppression are often confused.
Repression is associated with large-scale and profound experiences. Repression, on the other hand, is typically associated with more transient thoughts and emotions, such as fear or anger. Someone can suppress certain memories on purpose, but it can also occur automatically in people who often suppress things.
The concept of repressed memories has been discussed since the 1970s. Peck points to a Literature review 2019 discussing this longstanding controversy known as the “War of Memories.”
The disagreement is fueled by a few different narratives, including the idea of ”planted memories,” where a therapist — or in some cases, a prosecutor — can suggest forgotten memories.
Experts are divided on repressed memories and trauma versus other explanations. But many agree that the brain has various ways of protecting itself, including storing memories in ways that may not always be fully remembered.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) contains the idea of dissociative amnesiawhich is defined as the inability to recall autobiographical information.
According to the DSM-5, this information is:
- traumatic or stressful
- incompatible with ordinary forgetting
- saved successfully
- includes a period of time when the patient cannot remember the experience
- is not caused by a substance or neurological condition and
- always has the potential to be reversed
For this definition is essentially the same as that of repressed memories‘s continued skepticism about the existence of the phenomenon, despite the name change and inclusion in the handbook.
Arguments for the validity of the concept of repressed memories include other memory-related phenomena in support of experience, such as:
The concept of retrieval inhibition states that remembering certain information can lead to forgetting other information.
A connection between the two suggests that you can choose not to think about an event. This decision, in addition to remembering separate, less traumatic memories, makes the traumatic ones less accessible.
This is an idea that has been debated, but has not been studied enough in controlled settings to determine if it isis a valid explanation. There is currently no evidence that retrieval inhibition is more likely to occur in traumatic settings.
Motivated forgetting means that you can choose to forget something on purpose.
However, there are arguments against the association of this phenomenon with memory suppression. thereIt is not evidence that the memory is not available and will be remembered or retrieved later.
This theory states that memories are best released when the person is in a similar state of consciousness as when the event took place.
This concept was educated in rats, and the researchers tested the idea that traumatic events take place in different neural networks than non-traumatic ones.
No definitive conclusion
Experts agree that more research is needed to come to a definitive conclusion. They also agree that there is no plausible way to do it in an ethical way.
Lurie says there are no memoriesIt’s not always the most reliable, but that doesn’t detract from the need to honor people’s lived experiences.
“As humans, our memories aren’t always reliable,” says Lurie. “But the experience we have is whatwill be really important, so the way we experienced it [the trauma] in our body.”
Peck says the brain protects us by dissociating or distancing memories and experiences. “Itis a safety and survival mechanism. We repress all sorts of things until we’re confident enough to handle them,” she says.
Lurie says she has a memory of middle school, where both the hallways and the lockers looked and felt huge. But when she returned as adults, she found that they were of average height the whole time.
“Our body experiences things like it did back then,” she says. “Maybe the way it isis not 100% accurate, but the way we experienced it is important and the impact it hashad.”
Peck says those who disclose their experiences and encounter negative reactions are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This can increase the likelihood of a suppressed memory.
“I think it’s hard for people to think about sexual abuse in general because it creates a lot of traumatic symptoms,” says Peck. “Being in a safe therapeutic environment and learning good coping skills can help the person process the experience and deal with it more effectively.”
Lurie, who believes the concept of repressed memories has some validity, says our bodies are hardwired to survive and that surviving can lead to altered relationships.
“The body has different ways of responding to intense trauma,” says Lurie. “And one of the ways we can make it and just try to survive [is that] we can suppress memories of things that really shocked our system.”
Lurie says that our bodies may respond to trauma by remembering things that we may not necessarily remember clearly.
When someone encounters a trigger to remember a traumatic event, it can trigger a physiological “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This can be felt in the body as:
- the urge to flee (escape)
- increased pulse
- muscle tension
- increased breathing
“There are things that we might feel a little uncomfortable with or let go of, but we don’tI don’t necessarily know why,” she says. “And theThis is where the repressed memories can come to the surface.”
“Even if our minds doYou don’t have access to that memory, our body has it and he doestries to protect us in any way they can,” says Lurie. “This can mean both repressing the memory and withdrawing from certain activities or situations.”
If you’re coping with memories of trauma, especially if they’ve recently resurfaced, Lurie suggests journaling to calm you down.
“The kind of journaling I doI’m more referring to journaling about streams of consciousness,” says Lurie. “So youDon’t worry about the spelling, youI don’t worry about, ‘If I read this to someone, what if it were?doesn’t make sense to them?’”
When it comes to clinical support, Peck suggests reaching out to a professional who has extensive experience working with trauma and its possible manifestations.
“Being a trauma-informed clinician takes a lot of training. I wouldn’t suggest that anyone who hasn’t worked with this type of trauma begin treatment without the proper training, supervision, and/or counseling,” says Peck.
“Somatic modalities that involve the body at some level are most useful because they address the holistic effects of the trauma,” she says.
Other suggestions for navigating and processing traumatic and repressed memories are:
This “wonThey don’t help you release the trauma,” says Lurie, “but they can help your body feel secure even when you’re doing itThey don’t necessarily feel safe right now because of a past experience or trauma.”
Repressed memories can occur after a traumatic event. Some people have experiences of remembering at a later date.
There is controversy over the validity of the theory. Some experts argue that having less memory of a traumatic event does notdoes not agree with what we know about memory.
Despite the lack of consensus among experts and clinicians, it’s important to acknowledge your experience and get the support you need to go through this process.
If you are looking for a therapist but arenI don’t know where to start, Psych CentralThe Finding Mental Health Support resource can help you with this.