The experience and aftermath of traumatic events can affect your memory. But can the memory of a trauma be truly repressed?
The theory of repressed memories focuses on a traumatic event that a person may not remember at all, or may not remember until after the event.
Repressed memories are memories that aren’t easily accessed consciously, says Saba Harouni Lurie, licensed marriage and family therapist, licensed art therapist, and founder of Los Angeles’ Take Root Therapy.
Remembering a repressed memory “could begin with dream-like memories,” says psychologist Pauline Peck, PhD. It’s “something that doesn’t feel like a coherent narrative. You might have bits and pieces of a memory or have a strong felt ‘sense.’”
“Trauma is stored as fragments, not as a linear story,” Peck says. “Sometimes it just takes being curious and, most importantly, being supported so you feel like you can uncover whatever might be there.”
The concept of repressed memory originated with Sigmund Freud, whose understanding of human psychology focused heavily on the unconscious and subconscious mind.
Freud developed the idea of repression during his work with psychoanalysis. Freud believed that repression was a defense mechanism in the face of traumatic experiences.
Freud’s theory of repression originally thought of repression as a response to traumatic stress, then termed “hysteria.” According to Freud, this could occur with excessive stress, even if not considered physically threatening or traumatic.
However, Freud’s theory of repression is highly controversial and remains unproven.
The concepts of repression and suppression are often mixed up.
Repression is related to large-scale and deeply impactful experiences. Suppression, on the other hand, is typically related to more temporary thoughts and emotions, such as anxiety or anger. Someone may intentionally suppress certain memories, but it can also occur automatically in people who suppress things often.
Since the 1970s, the concept of repressed memories has been debated. Peck points to a 2019 literature review that discusses this long-standing controversy, known as “memory wars.”
The difference in opinion is driven by a few different narratives, including the idea of “planted memories,” in which a therapist — or in some cases, a legal prosecutor — may suggest forgotten memories.
Experts are split about repressed memories and trauma versus other explanations. But many agree that the brain has varied pathways to protection, including storing memories in ways that may not be completely remembered at all times.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) includes the idea of dissociative amnesia, which is defined as the inability to recall autobiographical information.
According to the DSM-5, this information is:
- traumatic or stressful
- inconsistent with ordinary forgetting
- successfully stored
- involves a period of time when the patient is unable to recall the experience
- is not caused by a substance or neurological condition, and
- always has the potential of being reversed
Because this definition is essentially the same as that of repressed memories, there’s continued skepticism about the phenomenon’s presence, despite the change in name and inclusion in the manual.
Arguments in favor of the validity of the concept of repressed memories include other memory-related phenomena to support the experience, such as:
The concept of retrieval inhibition states that remembering some information can lead to forgetting other information.
A connection between the two suggests that you can choose to not 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’s been discussed, but it hasn’t been studied enough in controlled settings to determine if it’s a valid explanation. There’s currently no evidence that says retrieval inhibition is more likely to occur in traumatic settings.
Motivated forgetting means you can choose to intentionally forget something.
However, there are arguments against this phenomenon’s connection to memory repression. There’s no evidence that the memory is unavailable and then later remembered or retrieved.
This theory states that memories are best unlocked when the person is in a similar state of consciousness as when the event happened.
This concept was studied in rats, and the researchers tested the idea that traumatic events are held in separate neural networks than nontraumatic ones.
No definitive conclusion
Experts agree that more research is needed to come to a definitive conclusion. They also agree that there’s no plausible way to do so in an ethical manner.
Lurie says that while memories aren’t always the most reliable, this doesn’t take away from the need to honor people’s lived experiences.
“As humans, yes, our memories are not always reliable,” Lurie says. “But the experience that we had is what’s really going to be important, meaning the way that we experienced it [the trauma] in our body.”
Peck says that dissociating or keeping memories and experiences at arm’s length is the brain’s way of keeping us safe. “It’s a safety and survival mechanism. We repress all sorts of things until we are safe enough to be able to deal with them,” she says.
Lurie says she had a memory from middle school where both the halls and lockers looked and felt huge. But when she returned as an adult, she realized that they were average-sized the entire time.
“Our body experiences things as it did at the time,” she says. “Maybe the way that it’s saved in memory is not 100% accurate, but the way that we experienced it matters and the impact that it’s had.”
Peck says that those who disclose their experiences and are met with negative responses are more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This may increase the chances of repressed memory.
“I think it is hard for people to think about sexual abuse in general, as it elicits a lot of trauma symptoms,” Peck says. “Being in a safe therapeutic environment and learning good coping skills can help the person process the experience and cope with it more effectively.”
Lurie, who believes there’s some validity to the concept of repressed memories, says that our bodies are hardwired to survive and that survival can lead to altered relationships.
“The body has different ways of responding to intense trauma,” Lurie says. “And one of the ways that we may manage and just try to survive [is that] we can repress memories of things that were really shocking to our system.”
Lurie says our body may respond to trauma as if it’s remembering things that we may not necessarily remember clearly.
When someone encounters a trigger for remembering a traumatic event, that may trigger a physiological “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This might be felt in the body as:
- the urge to escape (flight)
- increased heart rate
- muscle tension
- increased breathing
“There are things that maybe make us a bit uncomfortable or we disengage from, but we don’t know necessarily why,” she says. “And that’s where the repressed memories may be coming to the surface.”
“Even if our mind doesn’t have access to said memory, our body does, and it’s trying to keep us safe in whatever way it can,” Lurie says. “That might mean both repressing the memory and also having us withdraw from certain activities or situations.”
If you’re navigating memories of trauma, especially if they’ve recently reemerged, Lurie suggests tapping into journaling as a way to calm yourself.
“The type of journaling that I’m referring to is more like stream of consciousness journaling,“ Lurie says. “So you’re not worried about spelling, you’re not worried about ‘If I were to read this to someone, what if it didn’t make sense to them?’”
When it comes to clinical support, Peck suggests connecting with a professional who has substantial experience working with trauma and the ways it can show up.
“Being a trauma-informed clinician requires a lot of training. I would not suggest that someone who has not worked with these types of traumas begin treating them without the proper training, supervision, and/or consultation,” Peck says.
“Somatic modalities that incorporate the body at some level are most useful, as they address the holistic impact of the trauma,” she says.
Other suggestions for navigating and processing traumatic and repressed memories include:
- individual therapy modalities, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy or cognitive processing therapy (CPT)
- group therapy
- art as therapy or expression
These “won’t help you resolve the trauma,” Lurie says, “but they can help your body feel safe, even if you’re not necessarily feeling safe in the moment due to a past experience or a past trauma.”
Repressed memories may occur after a traumatic event. Some people have experiences of remembering at a later date.
There’s controversy over the validity of the theory. Some experts argue that having less memory of a traumatic event doesn’t line up with what we know of the memory.
Despite the lack of consensus among experts and clinicians, honoring your experience is important, alongside getting the support you need to move through this process.
If you’re looking for a therapist but aren’t sure where to start, Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.