Psychological repression is a defense mechanism in which we unconsciously push away painful or traumatic memories, thoughts or desires.
This also includes aggressive or sexual urges. We repress these unpleasant thoughts and memories so that we can lead a relatively normal life. Psychological repression is an unconscious act. If we consciously push distressing thoughts to the back of our mind, this is called suppression.
Sigmund Freud was the first person to talk about psychological repression. He believed that many of our physical and mental problems are caused by deeply repressed internal conflicts. Freud used psychoanalysis (talking therapy) to uncover these repressed thoughts and feelings.
Freud reasoned that although painful thoughts and disturbing memories were out of the conscious mind, they still had the capacity to cause neurotic behaviour. This is because they remained in the unconscious mind.
Psychological Repression and the Case of Anna O
Freud’s first case of psychological repression was a young woman called Anna O (real name Bertha Pappenheim). She was suffering from hysteria. She showed signs of convulsions, paralysis, loss of speech and hallucinations.
There did not appear to be a physical cause for her ailments. She then underwent psychoanalysis. It transpired that she had developed certain hysterical symptoms shortly after caring for her sick father. Once she had uncovered these anxious thoughts, the hysteria vanished.
Other examples of psychological repression:
- A child suffers abuse at the hands of his parents then represses the memories. When this person then goes on to have their own children, they have trouble bonding with them.
- A woman who nearly drowned as a very young toddler may develop a fear of swimming or water. She might have no idea where the phobia came from.
- A student might insult their teacher because they remind him of an abusive parent. He has no memory of the abuse.
- ‘Freudian slips’ are thought to be good examples of psychological repression. So any errors or slip-ups in a person’s speech should be noted.
Psychological repression is a necessary defense mechanism. It shields us from experiencing distressing thoughts on a daily basis. However, Freud believed that problems would occur whenever repression developed under a person’s superego (the moral conscience part of ourselves) in our unconscious mind. If this happened, it could lead to anxiety, antisocial or self-destructive behaviours.
According to Daniel Weinberger, a psychologist at Stanford University, around one in six of us tend to repress our unpleasant emotions or distressing memories. These are the ‘repressers’.
“Repressers tend to be rational and in control of their emotions,” Dr Weinberger said. “They see themselves as people who don’t get upset about things, who are cool and collected under stress. You see it in the competent surgeon or lawyer who values not letting his emotions shade his judgment.”
So how does repressing these traumatic memories affect us in the real world?
How can psychological repression affect you?
On the surface, repressers appear to be calm and in control. But underneath, it is a different story. Beneath this level of calm, repressers are quite anxious and feel stress even more than the ordinary person on the street.
Higher blood pressure
It seems that represser personalities show a greater risk for higher blood pressure, a higher risk for asthma and generally poorer health overall. In a simple stress test, repressers reacted with a much greater rise than non-repressers.
Lower resistance to infection
Studies carried out at the Yale School of Medicine found that repressers had a significantly reduced resistance to infectious diseases. 312 patients were treated at an outpatient clinic and repressers were found to have lower levels of disease-fighting cells of the immune system. They also had higher levels of cells that multiplied during allergic reactions.
Ignores health warnings
Repressers, it seems, have a very high self-image. They do not want people to think they are vulnerable in any way. Even to the point where they will ignore serious health warnings to their own body in favour of carrying on as if nothing was wrong.
Researchers think this might be a throw-back to when the represser was a child, living in an abusive situation. They would have had to pretend that everything was normal. They would look and present themselves as well-behaved in front of other adults whilst suppressing their own feelings.
Reluctant to seek help
Typically, a represser will avoid facing the reality of their situation so when they arrive at a problem it is unlikely that they will seek help. However, if they do manage to take the first step, there are treatments that work.
At Yale Behavioural Medicine Clinic, Dr. Schwartz uses biofeedback, where electrodes detect minute physiological responses. This helps the person to control their responses.
“With the biofeedback,” Dr Schwartz said, “we can show them the difference between their experience and how their body actually behaves.”
Over time, repressers slowly retrieve their distressing memories, under the guidance of a trained counsellor. They learn how to experience these feelings within a controlled environment. As a result, they are able to undergo these emotions and learn how to deal with them.
“Once they feel it’s safe to have negative experiences and talk about it, they rebuild their emotional repertoire,” Dr. Schwartz said.