Why do we have repressed memories? Could it be that some experiences are just too painful that our minds seek to protect us by shutting them down?
Experts believe that there is a common thread with repressed memories. When intense stress or trauma gets too severe, actual neurological changes happen in the brain to enable us to survive the experience.
These mechanisms are designed to allow us to cope by pushing the memory out of our consciousness.
The first person to recognise the significance of repressed memories was Sigmund Freud in the late 19th century. He described repression as a way of blocking out painful events so the person would not have to recall them.
Freud believed that repression is an unconscious way for the mind to act against trauma, as opposed to suppression, which is a conscious decision to block out memories.
Causes of Repressed Memories
Typically those who have suffered some form of abuse are the most prone to repressing their memories. Abuse can materialise in different ways, such as sexual, mental or even physical.
- Sexual Abuse – Those who have suffered from sexual abuse, in particular children, may find the experience so traumatic that it overwhelms them and the only way they can function is to repress what took place.
- Mental abuse – If a person has been the subject of mental or emotional abuse, in some cases it can prove to be so damaging to their psyche that they shut down in order to remain sane.
- Physical abuse – Particularly violent attacks can be so stressful that the only way the mind can cope is to block the event totally from a person’s memory. This refers to both single events and multiple ones.
How repressed memories affect us
By repressing memories, we are stopping the brain from reliving traumatic events. So how does this affect us in real life?
At the time of the painful event, repressing the memory might be the only way a person can function. However, many psychologists believe that if these memories are left repressed, they can lead to mental problems further down the line. Some psychologists believe that these painful repressed memories can exert an influence on our behaviour, which could undermine our mental state. This is because even though the memory is repressed, it is still an intact memory.
Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome
One of the most talked about problems when it comes to repressed memories is the rise of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD. This is when a person, who has buried a particularly stressful experience, then suddenly and without warning relives it. These traumatic flashbacks can occur when the person is triggered by environmental cues, including loud noises, bright lights, certain smells or locations.
It is typical for a person who is repressing their memories to avoid any kind of stimuli that might remind them, consciously or unconsciously of the traumatic event. This can be in the form of avoiding locations, situations, people and activities. This also manifests itself in a reluctance to talk about the painful event, whether this be friends, family or a professional.
Studies suggest that repressing bad memories from the past can stop a person from remembering more recent events. It is thought that the very act of repressing a painful memory actually causes a kind of ‘black hole’ in the brain where other memories, stressful or not, can get sucked up at the same time.
Scientists believe this is because if you are subconsciously trying to prevent a flashback of a traumatic event, anything you try to remember from around that time will be difficult to recall.
Despite repressing the painful memories, a person who has remains in a constant state of high arousal, whether they remember the event or not.
They might be unable to relax, to sleep properly at night, they will have a raised heartbeat, have difficulty concentrating and suffer from irritability.
What can you do if you are suffering from repressed memories?
People naturally behave under the influence of many factors, but when it comes to abuse and repressing memories, it is clear that without professional help, a person will be affected throughout their adulthood.
If you are a survivor of abuse and think you might be repressing unpleasant memories, there are ways to identify the specific psychological reasons that are preventing your recovery. You owe it to yourself to get rid of the roadblock that is affecting your life and to seek professional help.