What Is Repression And What Causes It?

Updated August 22, 2023by Regain Editorial Team

Repression is a mental health defense mechanism where the human brain forces targeted amnesia in the conscious mind, essentially “erasing” memories of traumatic events that are too painful to carry in the waking mind. Read on to explore what repressed memories are, why they happen, and how therapy can support you through the process. 

Exploring Dissociative Amnesia Definition, Symptoms, And Treatments

Some people refer to repression as dissociative amnesia, which is a psychological condition involving memory gaps. The disorder leaves a person unable to recall personal information typically related to stressful or traumatic experiences. Research shows that dissociative amnesia often occurs comorbid to Cluster B and Cluster C personality disorders. 

“Repression psychology is the process of an individual unconsciously denying anything too painful to acknowledge. This can include thoughts, memories, emotions, and ideas about a past event. It is a form of ‘motivated forgetting’ where the individual’s mind actively and unconsciously hides away any unwanted thoughts or memories.” — Unlocking the Mystery of Repression Psychology

Do You Think Repressed Memories Are Affecting You?

Types Of Memory

  • Episode Memory— Recalling memories and experiences as you would remember the plot of a movie, with contextual clues related to time, place, and the feelings you experienced at the time. 
  • Procedural Memory— Remembering motor routines, such as how to ride a bike, is procedural memory, also called muscle memory. This type of memory often exists outside of conscious awareness, where you don't think of recalling how to do a task; you automatically know how to do it.  
  • Semantic Memory— The knowledge you can recall about how the world works and the memories of words, dates, or facts.

How Many Memory Systems Are There?

Types Of Repression

Anyone can experience repression. The psychological disorder can affect anyone—regardless of gender, age, or previous mental stability. 

Repressed Memories

Some memories are too traumatic, overwhelming, or painful to recall and process consciously. Childhood trauma, in particular, can result in repressed memories pushed from the conscious mind for protection. Repressed memories may reemerge later, causing adverse impacts on multiple facets of your life. 

Repressed Trauma

Traumatic experiences can create memories that are too painful or overwhelming to process. Repressing the memories can help you through the experience the time, but you should be aware that those memories and their effects may reemerge later in your life. Studies show that residual trauma can shape how you interact with others, the coping skills that relieve stress, and your overall well-being in numerous ways.

Repression-Related Phobias

If you went through a traumatic experience, your brain may actively remove the memory to protect itself, though the effects remain. For example, a child may receive a violent dog bite, develop a phobia of canines, and not recall where the fear originated.

Sexual Repression

If you survived sexual abuse or exploitation early in life, you might repress your sexuality in favor of the expected role set out for you by family, culture, or society. Some people feel guilt or shame about their sexuality or sexual impulses and repress their sexual identities or orientations. Many people with sexual repression face difficulties in romantic relationships and attaining fulfillment sexually. 

Oedipus Complex

Neurologist and founder of the psychoanalysis field, Sigmund Freud, proposed that children go through a process during the genital stage where they may view their same-sex parent as a rival for the attention of the opposite-sex parent. The feelings of aggression are then repressed so the child can identify with the same-sex parent. The process is called the Oedipal complex in males and the Electra complex in females. 

Freud’s Concept Of Repression

In the early 1890s, Freud established the field of psychoanalysis to help understand the mental processes that create behavior and personality. Freud believed the human mind operates at three levels of consciousness. His psychoanalytic theory suggests repression can distort reality, leading to neurosis and dysfunction. 

  • Preconscious— Anything that could potentially be brought into the conscious mind
  • Conscious— Everything you are aware of at any given moment, including your thoughts, feelings, memories, desires, and comfort. Your memories may not always consciously be on your mind but exist in the preconscious, where they can easily be recalled to the conscious mind. 
  • Unconscious— The emotions, ideas, thoughts, urges, and memories outside your conscious awareness. Things relegated to the unconscious mind typically relate to unpleasant or unacceptable feelings or impulses, such as pain, trauma, conflict, anxiety, shame, or guilt. 

Repression Vs. Suppression: What’s The Difference?

Many people may confuse the meanings of repression and suppression. Suppression is an entirely voluntary experience where a person deliberately works to forget painful or unwanted thoughts, pushing them away to deal with later or forget altogether. Repression is the unconscious blocking of traumatic memories or impulses that are too painful or psychologically disruptive to process. 

What Causes Repression?

When you go through something so painful or traumatic that just remembering it causes intense distress, your brain may unconsciously repress those memories to protect itself. However, those memories or impulses often reemerge later, potentially causing substantial mental and emotional stress. 

Childhood Abuse Or Trauma

Children find unique ways to adapt and survive when exposed to abuse, neglect, or trauma during childhood. Childhood trauma may be repressed to allow a person to function when they don't have the ability or resources to process those memories and emotions. However, they often reappear during adulthood. 

Traumatic Events

Many people find that their memories of the worst moments in their life may soften or fade entirely. Trauma can affect memory, making things "hazy or foggy," so you can't recall them clearly. 

Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts And Impulses

If you feel intense shame, guilt, or another negative emotion regarding intrusive thoughts or sexual impulses, your brain may repress them to help you function. However, those repressed feelings often reemerge. Cognitive behavioral therapy with a licensed therapist may be more effective at helping you manage your emotions. 

Recognizing The Signs And Symptoms Of Repression

  • You may constantly feel uneasy or uncomfortable but remain unable to identify a source for the feelings. 
  • Frequent mood swings could indicate the reappearance of repressed memories.
  • Many people who repressed past experiences find their relationships are often chaotic. 
  • Alcohol or substance use disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and other mental health challenges could be related to repression. 
  • Behavioral addictions, such as sex, work, shopping, gambling, etc. 
  • You may experience feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, which often have physical side effects such as high blood pressure, skin conditions, fatigue, obesity, headache, dizziness, and pain and the back, chest, neck, abdomen, or muscles. 
Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Do You Think Repressed Memories Are Affecting You?

How Repression Can Impact Your Life

  • Dreams
  • Phobias related to something you can’t remember.
  • Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety 
  • Speaking “unconscious” thoughts (Freudian slips)
  • Physical health problems
  • Decreased immune system reactions due to stress. 

Controversy Related To Repression

Repression is a controversial topic in the mental health community. While it has been a foundational tenet of psychoanalysis since Freud introduced the concept, many critics have since challenged the validity or even the existence of repression. 

Studies have shown that people can form false memories of events that did not occur, calling into question how accurate repressed memories are. A significant body of research also shows that trauma can strengthen the clarity of memory for some people, often resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. 

What Are the Treatments For Repression?

Working with a licensed therapist is the most common and effective treatment for repressed memories, emotions, and impulses. Develop your sense of emotional intelligence, awareness, and literacy to help you recognize, understand, and express your feelings. 

  • Psychodynamic Therapy
  • Psychoanalytic Therapy
  • Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT)

Reach Out For Professional Help

Exploring your past experiences and mental landscape to rediscover repressed memories can be a difficult and emotionally complex endeavor. You may benefit from speaking with a qualified therapist to secure the support and guidance of a mental health professional before you delve into repressed memories and the associated emotions. 

How Therapy Can Help

Many people believe they carry repressed memories related to traumatic or painful experiences. If you think you might have unconsciously forgotten past experiences, consider working with a licensed therapist through a virtual therapy platform like Regain. Therapy can help you identify and understand your emotions, develop healthy coping skills to manage mental health symptoms and stress, and teach communication strategies to help you express your feelings and needs to those closest to you. Parents or guardians seeking support for a child with repressed memories can contact TeenCounseling for online treatment for kids from 12-19

Numerous recent studies show similar outcomes for online and in-person therapy. However, teletherapy offers several unique benefits, such as reduced costs, shorter wait times, and a comprehensive selection of qualified mental health professionals. If you don’t find someone who fits your personality and situation and makes you feel comfortable on the first try, connecting with another therapist is simple. 

Takeaway 

If you have parts of your life you can't remember but know you went through something traumatic, you may have repressed the memories. The information in this article offers insight into why repressed memories are, why you might have them, and how therapy can help you heal to move on with your life. 

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