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What is a Repressed Memory?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A repressed memory is one that has been blocked out of a person's conscious mind. The memory is not entirely forgotten, and may come back many years or even decades after an event took place. Most instances of repressed memories involve especially traumatic, stressful, or frightful events, such as childhood abuse, a car accident, or a war battle. Cognitive psychologists and other researchers have long debated the existence and significance of repressed memories, since cases are usually difficult to study and clinically diagnose. The concept of repressed memory disorder is often correlated with dissociative amnesia, a condition that has been better studied and understood.

According to many psychologists, a person may repress a memory if an event was so traumatic that he or she was simply unable to process and cope with the situation at the time. In some cases, people report they cannot recall long periods of time from their childhood; there may even be years without any significant memories. It is common for such people to have suffered significant abuse or neglect during those years. An individual usually struggles to come to terms with his or her past when a repressed memory eventually does resurface. He or she and may experience new distress, confusion, and relationship issues.

Dissociative amnesia is a clinically diagnosable mental disorder that involves repressed memories of stressful or traumatic events. It is common for people with dissociative amnesia to also struggle with bouts of depression or anxiety for reasons unclear to them, but likely stem from past trauma. Psychiatrists usually make diagnoses after thorough physical and mental evaluations have been completed and other causes of memory lapse, such as drug abuse or insomnia, have been ruled out. An individual who has dissociative amnesia usually receives psychological counseling to help him or her overcome stresses and behavioral problems, discuss past events in a safe environment, and learn how to better cope with future situations.

A repressed memory is most often recovered spontaneously at some point in adulthood. Some people recall information after visiting a forgotten site or childhood, recognizing a sound or smell, or hearing a vaguely familiar name. Memories can sometimes be recovered through intensive psychotherapy or hypnotherapy, wherein trained psychologists help people remember events through suggestive questioning. Many professionals, however, dispute both the efficacy and ethics of asking pointed questions to recover memories. Some psychologists believe that repressed memory therapy techniques can produce false memories if the person asking the questions is too leading or manipulative.

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Discussion Comments
By anon317619 — On Feb 03, 2013

I believe there are things I witnessed that are horrible. I don't think it would be safe to remember these things. I don't want them back in my thoughts. Is it OK to leave repressed thoughts where they are?

By anon314792 — On Jan 19, 2013

I am 47. Over the past couple of months, events in my past have come back in my memory. There hasn't been any sight or sound that has triggered the memories. I can be watching T.V., lying in bed or working. I don't understand why I am suddenly remembering these events, but I will trust that the above posts are some of the reasons. I guess at the time of these events, they were traumatic and hard to understand and cope with.

I wonder why all these memories are coming back to me all at once. I guess my mind is ready to deal with them to help me with my anxiety and depression.

By anon290086 — On Sep 07, 2012

I am a 53-year-old male. I have almost no memory of the period before my mid 20's except for a few vignettes. Depression has become an increasing feature of my life along with a gnawing sense that the lost 20-plus years are the key.

Memories do come back unbidden with unexpected associations, but they're single events. I know my father was borderline, mother narcissistic, brothers physically, sexually, emotionally abusive. I guess I'm hoping one day to be the product of my whole life in an integrated way since the depression seems related to the repressed stuff. I hope remembering and accepting will make me whole, even if in pain.

By FitzMaurice — On Mar 03, 2011

@dbuckley212

It is true that a resurrection of deep repressed thoughts can become a reality, but this can also be painful to look back and confront. In coming face to face with these memories, however, we are enabled to overcome them and find redemption, healing deep scars of the past for the betterment of the future.

By dbuckley212 — On Mar 02, 2011

These repressed memories can be brought to the light through therapy or personal victory over deep depression and denial. Sometimes medication may also be necessary to get over this hump. I know examples of people who begin to piece together large portions of their lives that were formerly lost to the void of the unconscious.

By anon74887 — On Apr 04, 2010

Very insightful. I have this; no memory of many years of my childhood. Depression, anxiety have been my life. I always thought my having no memories of my parents/home life as a child were odd. Now I am beginning to understand. I am 51.

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