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3 min read

What Are Repressed Memories And How Can Therapy Help the Healing Process?

woman with repressed trauma

Traumatic memories can be a problem for many people, developing into mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other disorders. Traumatic experiences can shape us, but there is some disagreement within the psychology community about the existence of true repressed memories. Many are asking the question: can therapy help me remember trauma?

Are Repressed Memories a Real Phenomenon?

The concept of repressed memories is something that took hold of the public imagination for a period of time in the seventies through the nineties due to strong media influence, and has been slow to die. Starting with Sigmund Freud, therapists had long believed that certain memories were too traumatic to hold onto in the human mind, and that these memories could become buried, to later be recalled by a skilled therapist. During the eighties and nineties, the Satanic Panic showed us that this idea was not only wrong, but could be harmful.

The idea of repressed memories remains a sticky debate to this day. Many researchers and mental health professionals say that repressed memories are not a real phenomenon, while others defend the idea.

History of Repressed Memories and the Subconscious Mind

Psychological science has focused on memories and trauma for years. This is because memory is an extremely complicated and potentially unreliable thing in general. Starting with Freud in the 1800s, therapists posited that people repressed memories as a defense mechanism because the psychological impact of past trauma was too much to process. Therefore, a traumatic event could occur, but a person may not remember the event at all.

What this didn't take into account was the existence of false memories. Therapists would recover "repressed memories", through hypnosis or age regression, but in many cases it turned out that these repressed memories were of traumatic events that proved never to have happened at all. The human mind is extremely suggestible, and in some cases either consciously or unconsciously, certain therapists would guide the patient into creating false memories of traumatic experiences.

Books like Sybil and Michelle Remembers use repressed memories to build a narrative around traumatic events that were later proven to be the result of poor therapeutic practices. Sensationalism in the media then ran for a couple of decades and the legal system used the idea of repressed traumatic memory to wrongly convict many people of crimes that they were later found to have not committed. It was also later discovered that the same therapeutic approaches that were used to find repressed memories could also implant false memories.

Why Is Repressed Memory Therapy Used?

When repressed memory was a more mainstream idea, recovered memory therapy was a way to figure out how to help people with a mental health condition that was difficult to treat. A mental health professional who specialized in recovered memory therapy would often put a person under hypnosis to find lost memories of childhood abuse (including sexual abuse) and then use those recovered memories to treat trauma.

Some mental health professionals may still use recovered memory therapy to recover repressed memories for conditions like post traumatic stress disorder or personality disorders, but because this approach can lead to the trauma therapist suggesting distressing memories that can be false me memories, there are different ways that therapists deal with early memories of traumatic events.

Memory Problems and PTSD

While repressed memories are not an agreed-upon phenomenon, research does agree that past traumas can lead to negative feelings and other trauma symptoms. And traumatic memories may not always be clear, or cut and dried. During a traumatic event like sexual abuse the mind can go into a kind of fugue state, making it difficult to remember events in a clear and cohesive way. Dissociation, denial, new context, and just plain forgetting can add to the idea of "recovered memories".

Signs of Childhood Trauma in Adults

Adults who have experienced childhood trauma such as physical, mental, or sexual abuse may experience a number of symptoms, including:

  • Panic attacks
  • Mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining healthy relationships with others
  • Negative beliefs about themselves
  • Physical symptoms like shallow breathing, rapid heart rate, trembling, or muscle tension

Can Trauma Therapy Help Me Even if I Can't Remember What Happened?

While you should be suspicious of a mental health professional who claims that they can help you recall traumatic memories under hypnosis, there are therapeutic approaches that can help you process childhood trauma, even if all of your memories aren't clear. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy is one of these types of therapy. The brain stores fear, stress, and other negative feelings around childhood trauma, and while childhood amnesia may not allow you to clearly remember a traumatic experience, the brain can reprocess it with the help of a professional.

Even if you don't have conscious awareness of specific memories, you can work with the feelings around a certain person, or about a place or time, and use bilateral stimulation alongside talk therapy to process the negative feelings. The therapist will also work with the client on building self-compassion and healthy coping skills.

Asking for Help: Therapy Options

Childhood trauma doesn't necessarily lead to repressed memories in the context popularized in media according to many experts. However, childhood amnesia may result from improper storage of memories, dissociation during events, and repressing aspects of their trauma. Therapy like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can help by processing experienced trauma to improve symptoms and increase well-being.

Trauma Support in Brooklyn

Childhood trauma and repressed memory may lead to feelings of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. Evidence-based therapy that treats the root cause without creating false memories (like EMDR therapy) can help.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our team of doctoral-level psychotherapists offers both online and in-person appointments that can help you process your trauma, and learn healthy coping skills to manage anxiety or depression.

Give us a call today, and our patient coordinator will help you find the right Brooklyn therapist to offer tools and support to heal from the past, and move forward with more confidence and self-compassion. 

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

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