In some cases, individuals may experience a traumatic event that triggers such a potent stress response via the sympathetic nervous system, that memory of the event becomes repressed. The potency of the stress-response exceeds their innate ability to cope and other coping resources. Emotions associated with the traumatic event are often overpowering, leading to intense sensations of: anger, depression, fear, guilt, hopelessness, or shame – all negative emotions.
For some individuals, these negative emotions seem to hit like a ton of bricks; so hard that they interfere with our cognitive function and memory processing. The interference of the stress response with memory consolidation is what often leads to repression of memories or repression of details regarding traumatic experiences. Some individuals may forget significant details surrounding the traumatic event, while others may forget the entire experience.
In this case, there is a “gap” or lapse in memory surrounding the time of the trauma. The individual knows that they endured the traumatic event, but they are so emotionally overwhelmed and physiologically “fried” that memory of the traumatic event is submerged beneath conscious perception. The submerging of a memory beneath conscious perception is referred to as “repression” of a memory and is thought to serve as an innate psychological coping mechanism during times of overwhelming distress.
What are repressed memories?
Repressed memories are memories that have been blocked from conscious perception as a result of significant stress or trauma. When we experience a significant degree of stress or trauma, our sympathetic nervous system becomes hyperactivated and overwhelms our brain. The brain is overwhelmed with surges of intense emotions and stimulation via the sympathetic nervous system.
The stimulation is designed to help keep us alive in the event of an emergency. It provides us with superhuman strength, focus, and our body surges with adrenaline. It is this surging of intense emotion that may overwhelm some individuals and ultimately interfere with their ability to recall a traumatic event. While repressed memories are more likely to occur among those without fully developed brains, they may occur in anyone that endures a traumatic experience.
Causes of Repressed Memories
It is thought that the cause of repressed memories is subject to significant individual variation. The common theme associated with repression of memories is that of intense stress and/or trauma. When the trauma and/or stress becomes severe, it is thought that neurological adaptations (resulting in repression) take place to help ensure survival.
Abuse: Those that have experienced abuse whether it be physical, psychological, or sexual – are prone to repressed memories. Abuse can be ongoing such as that dished out by a parent or an isolated occurrence. In any regard, the abuse experienced often exceeds a person’s psychological coping ability, and one of the only ways to cope involves pushing the memory out of conscious perception.
- Physical abuse: Those that are violently beaten or “hit” by others may block all memory of the event from consciousness. Physical abuse often leaves psychological marks, but permanent psychological scars. The physical abuse may be ongoing or an isolated event that leads to repression of memories of the attacks.
- Psychological abuse: Anyone that has been verbally abused or repeatedly bullied is at increased risk for nearly every mental illness. It is important to note that verbal abuse in the form of bullying or harassment may not affect one person to the same extent as another. Some individuals literally “shut down” emotionally and their brains re-wire in attempt to repress memories of these psychological attacks.
- Sexual abuse: Victims of sexual abuse, particularly children often forget aspects of what they experience. Sexual abuse (e.g. rape) often leads the victim to feel so stressed and overwhelmed, that all thoughts of the trauma are repressed. This repression occurs because they cannot cope with their experience and essentially bury memories of the trauma beneath their consciousness.
Grief: It is possible to experience repressed memories as a result of intense grief. For example, someone who loses a family member or significant other may end up feeling so traumatized, that they cannot function. Eventually the memories surrounding the grief get buried below conscious perception and they are “repressed.”
Stress: Those that have endured significant amounts of stress may find that it accumulates, reaches a pinnacle, and eventually results in a nervous breakdown. There may be a few stressful events that trigger the breakdown, but in other cases it may be a result of poor self-care. Regardless of the cause of your high stress and/or nervous breakdown, you may notice that memories may become repressed as a result of the fight-or-flight response.
Trauma: Anyone that has endured a traumatic event may experience memory repression. For some people, remembering any details of the trauma is extremely difficult. Other individuals may be able to remember “bits and pieces” of the experience, but may have no recollection of other notable details.
There are many things that can cause trauma including: war, abuse (particularly during childhood), rape, violence, crime, medical diagnoses, and natural disasters. After the trauma is experienced, a person remains in a perpetual state of fear, often unable to cope with their emotions. If the person’s ability to cope and/or coping resources are exceeded by the psychological impact of the trauma, they may repress certain memories.
Possible Mechanisms of Repressed Memories (Neural & Physiological)
Due to individual differences, it is difficult to pinpoint the specific underlying neural and physiological mechanisms responsible for repression of memories in every case. That said, some commonalities may be apparent among individuals with repressed memories. Below is a list of speculative contributing mechanisms responsible for repressed memories.
Brain regions: During or following a traumatic experience, activation of brain regions often becomes altered. Certain regions become overactivated, while others become underactivated. It is the simultaneous overactivation and underactivation of various regions that represses our memories and/or our ability to recall our traumatic experience.
- Hippocampus: Research demonstrates that following a traumatic event, a morphological change occurs in the hippocampus. If this trauma is endured at a young age, it can disrupt hippocampal development and ultimately its functionality throughout adulthood. It is the hippocampus that is responsible for helping consolidate memory. Following trauma, the hippocampus may become underactivated, thus resulting in poor memory retrieval.
- Prefrontal cortex: Among those experiencing retrograde amnesia (loss of memory leading up to a traumatic event), it has been found that activity in the prefrontal cortex increases. That said, it is also thought that there may be a hypometabolism in the right inferolateral prefrontal cortex following traumatic events.
Brain waves: It has been suggested that brain waves may be part of a complex mechanism responsible for repressing memories. Those that endure significant amounts of stress often experience changes in brain wave rhythms. Individuals with repressed memories may have an abnormal EEG (electroencephalograph) characterized by excess fast wave activity (e.g. beta waves) in regions that aren’t associated with this activity.
Others may experience excess slow wave activity (e.g. theta waves) in regions associated with conscious perception. Brain wave abnormalities may contribute to an inability to access repressed memories. By altering an individual’s brain wave pattern, repressed memories may resurface.
Hormones: The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for manufacturing stimulatory hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. When these hormones are manufactured in large quantities, they are capable of affecting the brain and its ability to function. Excess levels of these hormones may alter brain waves, regional activation, neurotransmission, and may result in memory repression.
Neurotransmission: In addition to our hormones being thrown out of homeostatic balance as a result of trauma or stress, our neurotransmission is also altered. This altered neurotransmission may result in abnormally low serotonin, low dopamine, or in some cases – high dopamine. It is certainly plausible that the neurotransmitter alterations play a significant role in the repression of memories.
Sympathetic nervous system: The root cause of the stress response is the sympathetic nervous system. It is the sympathetic nervous system that produces the “fight-or-flight” response, an unconscious survival mechanism for dealing with dangerous situations. When the sympathetic nervous system becomes overactive, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes underactive and we cannot relax. This inability to relax leads to greater production of hormones, neurotransmitters, brain waves, and regional changes that keep our memories repressed.
How to Recover Repressed Memories & Heal from the Trauma
Those that have repressed memories may be cognizant of the fact that they’ve endured a particular trauma, but their memory of the experience may be blocked. In this case, a person may want to recover their repressed memories. Recovery is often difficult and should be attempted only when the individual is prepared to cope with the memories and emotions that accompany those memories.
Recovery should only be attempted under the supervision of a highly-skilled psychotherapist. Though you may be able to recover repressed memories on your own, you may not be able to cope with the emotional upheavals that may simultaneously surface. In most cases, repressed memories will trigger significant emotional responses.
1. Assess whether you are ready
Assuming you want to recover your repressed memories, you should determine whether you’re really ready. Is your lifestyle low stress, healthy, and do you have social support? If you’re dealing with a significant amount of stress, don’t have any social support, and are coping with other psychological problems – you may not be ready to deal with the repressed memories.
If you’re going to attempt to recover repressed memories, you’ll want to work with a professional. This could be a psychotherapist and/or psychologist that you connect with and that understands your situation. You may want to take some time to build up a connection with a healthy rapport before getting straight to facing your trauma and repressed memories.
3. Chose recovery method(s)
Once you’ve determined that you’re ready to deal with the repressed memory, and you’ve established a relationship with a competent psychotherapist, you can choose a method of recovery. Your therapist may suggest a particular method based on their particular training. It is up to you to work with them to agree on a method by which you’re going to uncover the repressed memory and associated trauma.
- EMDR: Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing is a technique employed to cope with trauma and can be used to uncover repressed memories. When a traumatic event is experienced, it overwhelms neural coping mechanisms. EMDR is an 8-phase treatment that helps a person reprocess a traumatic event and cope with their repressed memories.
- Internal Family Systems Therapy: This is a specific type of psychotherapy that targets traumatic experiences that occur in individual, couple, and family scenarios. The practice combines various elements of the “mind” with “systems thinking.” Those trained in IFST help others heal on their own without a sense of urgency or persuasion.
- Neurofeedback: Addressing faulty electrical activity (i.e. brain waves) within the cortex can be an effective way to cope with repressed memories. Neurofeedback involves analyzing areas of the brain in which certain brain waves are abnormal, and self-correcting them via a feedback loop. By correcting abnormal brain waves, an individual may recover repressed memories.
- Sensorimotor psychotherapy: This is a body-centered form of psychotherapy that can be effective in uncovering repressed memories and coping with any associated trauma. It involves increasing awareness of bodily sensations to help buried memories and emotions resurface.
- Somatic experiencing: This is a form of therapy that focuses on reliving symptoms of PTSD by focusing on somatic experiences and [perceived] bodily sensations. It is based on the idea that trauma and repressed memories stem from autonomic nervous system dysfunction. This therapy allows individuals to work towards correcting this dysfunction and “healing.”
Keep in mind that some individuals may respond better to a multi-faceted recovery approach (e.g. EMDR and neurofeedback) compared to using just one recovery technique. Also understand that individual responses may vary significantly between the techniques. One individual may find “somatic experiencing” as most beneficial for uncovering repressed memories, while another may benefit most from “neurofeedback.”
4. Additional support
Assuming you’re on the path to uncovering repressed memories and healing from a traumatic experience, you may want some additional support and coping tools.
- Biofeedback: One of the best tools for managing all stress associated with repressed memories is a device called the emWave2. This device helps you balance your autonomic nervous system functioning, teaching you how to consciously regulate your stress response and turn it off when necessary.
- Journaling: To get the maximum benefit from processing repressed memories, you may want to maintain a journal. I recommend the software “The Journal” – but you can use anything including a physical notebook if it works better for you. Journaling about your recovery experience, the repressed memories, and associated emotions is invaluable in that it allows you to review your experience at a future date.
- Social support: If you have any close friends, family, or a significant other that you can trust, you may need a bit of extra social support during this time. It helps if you can talk to them about the repressed memories you experienced without them judging. While social support should never replace a competent psychotherapist, it can serve as a helpful adjunct.
5. Time heals all wounds
Understand that the first day you uncover repressed memories may be unsettling and emotionally unpleasant. You may end up crying for nearly a full therapy session and end up feeling extremely depressed. During this time, you need to make sure you take good care of yourself including: getting proper sleep, eating healthy, socializing, exercising, and staying busy.
As time continues to pass, you’ll continue to make progress in healing from your past trauma. The healing process may seem impossible at first, but over time, you’ll realize that the repressed memories have been processed and are a thing of the past. They can no longer hold you back because you’ve successfully dealt with them, and learned how to cope with the past.
FAQs: Repressed Memories
Below are a few frequently asked questions associated with repressed memories. If you have another question that you’d like answered, feel free to add it in the comments section below.
Do repressed memories really exist?
It really depends who you ask, as well as their definition of “repressed memory.” Some experts and trauma survivors believe that repressed memories most definitely exist; I happen to fit within this camp. Those that believe they exist suggest that they are a natural response to a traumatic event or high degree of stress.
Other experts believe repressed memories do not exist and that they are often nothing more than pseudo-memories generated via therapeutic suggestion. Another theory is that they are really a “blending” of false and factual memories. A third hypothesis is that repressed memories cannot exist due to the fact that there’s no objective evidence to verify their existence.
Will everyone be able to recover repressed memories?
I don’t believe that everyone will be able to recover repressed memories. In some cases, a traumatic experience may have occurred so long ago, that even with optimal recovery efforts, the repressed memories stay forever buried. This may not be the answer that everyone’s hoping for, but it’s the reality for some individuals.
Most people will be able to recover their repressed memories with the proper strategy, timing, and interventions. That said, some people may not want to ever recover them and may see no value in doing so. Those that experienced a particular trauma at a very young age may have a more difficult time recovering the repressed memory due to the fact that certain memory processing and retrieval mechanisms may have been underdeveloped.
Is recovering repressed memories always a good idea?
I would argue that recovery of repressed memories is a neutral act in itself. However, the consequences associated with doing so may be either detrimental or positive, depending on how well-equipped an individual is to cope. Those that are ready to face their repressed memories and their associated emotions may find significant peace and healing from the act of recovery.
Individuals that aren’t ready to face their memories and/or don’t have any coping strategies in place, may fall victim to significant negative emotions associated with the repressed memory. This may lead to intense feelings of depression, hopelessness, and anxiety – further compromising their ability to function.
How can I tell if the memories were real or fake?
Many people question whether repressed memories are real or just pseudo memories generated from the subconscious. Some experts believe that in trying to unveil these repressed memories, a person ends up creating a false memory of the event or what they believe happened – rather than uncovering the actual memory. In my experience, repressed memories aren’t something that you’re 25%, 50% or 75% sure happened.
When a repressed memory emerges into your consciousness, you remember it fully and are 100% sure that it happened. In other words, you most likely won’t be second guessing the details of the experience, rather you’ll know that the memory was accurate. You won’t need to mentally strain your brain in attempt to recall the details – they will likely appear automatically.
Personal experience with repressed memories
In my past, I’ve dealt with severe depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The PTSD that I experienced revved up my sympathetic nervous system, flooded my body with adrenaline, and my thoughts sped up (almost as if I was high on endogenous stimulants). The overwhelming stimulation would repress memories related to the events that triggered my PTSD.
My adrenaline levels continued to skyrocket, and eventually adrenaline was my main source of fuel. I was high on an endogenous supply of adrenaline that served to block out all traumatic memories and all of the emotional pain of the past. After approximately 1 year of psychotherapy, I felt as if I was ready to deal with some of the trauma.
To overcome PTSD and all associated repressed memories, my recovery spanned across a period of approximately 6 years. My journey started with EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) which was somewhat effective. A few memories related to the trauma emerged following my EMDR, and I had some difficulty dealing with them, but it wasn’t too bad compared to what I would face in the future.
As I continued to reduce my adrenaline levels via therapy, meditation, self-hypnosis, exercise, brainwave entrainment (with Neuro Programmer 3), and using the emWave2 – uncomfortable emotions and repressed memories emerged. These memories popped out of nowhere, were generally unexpected, and emotionally-charged. They were usually details surrounding a past trauma that had been buried beneath my conscious perception – along with my emotions.
Uncomfortable repressed memories continued to surface along with emotions; the two went hand-in-hand. This lead to many therapy sessions of me walking in and crying for the full allotted time. When the memories and emotions are repressed, it’s difficult to cry because you don’t perceive them. When they resurface to the forefront of consciousness – it’s nearly impossible not to cry.
By processing these repressed memories, I initially felt significantly worse, followed by some degree of peace and healing. I cannot guarantee that everyone will have the same experience as me. Some individuals may end up feeling significantly better than me, while others may want to drown out the memories with alcohol, drugs, etc. due to the associated emotional pain.
Have you ever experienced repressed memories?
If you’ve experienced significant past trauma or abuse, did you end up with repressed memories? Did the memories later surface in therapy with conscious effort or unexpectedly? Or do you believe that many of your memories are still repressed, buried beneath conscious perception? Share your experience with repressed memories in the comments section below.