What Is Repression And What Causes It?
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
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.
Types Of Repression
Anyone can experience repression. The psychological disorder can affect anyone—regardless of gender, age, or previous mental stability.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How Repression Can Impact Your Life
- 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.
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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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is repression, according to Freud?
According to Freud, repression is the unconscious prevention of unwanted desires. As such, repression psychology could result in and address unacceptable behavior. Freud first discovered repression when he had difficulty helping his patients recall their past during a review of general psychology. He hypothesized that a mechanism prevented his patients from disclosing their memories.
Not only did he name this mechanism "repression," but Freud viewed it as an important psychological defense mechanism. Freud believed that people could alleviate their psychological distress by bringing unconscious thoughts into awareness.
Additionally, Freud divided repression into two types: primal repression and repression proper.
- Primal Repression
- Primal repression describes the ego's process of burying undesired thoughts, feelings, and memories into the id, which is below the level of consciousness. Freud believes that the unconscious process of repressing memories even below the id can create symptoms of anxiety.
- Repression Proper
- Repression proper is an unconscious process where Freud's ego concept prevents unwanted thoughts from breaching into consciousness. These thoughts would be considered banished from a person's conscious awareness because they may produce feelings of guilt or shame.
What is repression in psychology example?
An example of repression in the context of psychology can include a person repressing violent or sexual-related childhood memories. Freud focused his cognitive psychology study of repression on childhood abuse that is sexual. As such, he came up with the idea of "free association," in which a person would go over their thoughts out loud in the hopes of creating a correlation between their conscious thoughts and unconscious feelings. In this way, the person may become aware of their unconscious thoughts and treat them personally with a psychologist's help. However, abuse is never okay. If you or someone you know are experiencing abuse, it's important to seek help right away. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available for support and guidance 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can be reached online or by calling 800.SAFE (7233).
What does repression mean in psychology?
Repression in psychology involves unconsciously forgetting or blocking out memories, thoughts, feelings, or otherwise unpleasant impulses. A person experiencing repression tends to forget the circumstances that contributed to those unwanted feelings completely. Examples of repression in clinical psychology include:
- People having no recollection of abuse during childhood
- A woman forgets about intense pain during labor
- Somebody who got into an accident cannot recall the incident or specific details
These negative emotions may have been unconsciously , but they may still influence people's behavior, personality, and cognitive psychology. For instance, someone may have trouble developing relationships without knowing why. It may be helpful to become aware of unconscious thoughts to improve oneself as a person and interpersonal relationships. However, it may also be difficult to remember repressed incidents as the individual may not recall them ever occurring.
What is an example of a repression defense mechanism?
Repression psychological defense mechanisms may help people escape unpleasant feelings, impulses, or memories. The purpose of these mechanisms is to allow the person to distance themselves from feeling fear, guilt, shame, or other negative emotions. However, people can employ these defense mechanisms unconsciously. They include:
- A child that experienced abuse as a child may have no recollection of it but has difficulties forming relationships as an adult.
- A child who was bit by a spider may not remember it, but they developed an intense phobia of spiders later in life.
- An individual may have had a near-death experience, almost drowning in the ocean but not remember it. However, they have a strong fear of bodies of water later in life.
What problems can repression cause?
Repression can potentially cause several physical symptoms and may lead to psychological symptoms as well. Emotional repression may lead to a decreased immune system, which can make people feel sick more frequently. Other physical symptoms include:
- Muscle tension and pain
- Appetite changes
- Sleep pattern changes
If somebody does not express their anger in productive ways as a result of repression, they may have a higher chance of developing:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Digestive problems
Lastly, repression may lead to psychological symptoms such as anxiety and depression. Thus, if you feel that you may be repressing your thoughts and emotions and affecting your mental health, it may be helpful to consult a mental health professional for support.
Why is repression bad?
Still, its long-term effects usually do not impact a person's physical or mental health in a positive way. Instead, people with repressed memories may feel held back when socializing with their peers. For example, those with repressed memories may have a hard time creating and maintaining relationships. When repressed emotions or memories are not dealt with, they may create lasting effects on an individual's mental or physical health. The inability to attribute anxiety, depression, or other mental health symptoms to any specific cause induce distress and limit healing.
What is the difference between repression and denial?
Although repression and denial are considered defense mechanisms, they differ. Denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms used. Someone in denial is blocking external events or rejecting something that they know to be true. For example, an individual may be in denial that their drinking or substance use is an issue in their life because they continue to function in their day-to-day life. However, an individual who represses a memory is restraining something and unconsciously forgetting the event, as if it never happened, to keep the disturbing or difficult memory from becoming conscious.
What are repressed wishes?
According to Freud, dreams are disguised repressed wishes. For instance, a person may have dreams of future ambitions that could describe something they desire. Furthermore, Freud divided dreams into two components:
- Manifest content
- Actual content
- Latent content
- Underlying meaning
Freud believes unconscious wishes are hidden from the manifest content because of a conflicting force from the conscious mind that somehow deems inappropriate wishes. Thus, he believes that if the conflicting force, referred to as censorship, is analyzed, then there may be a way for people to become aware of their unconscious desires. In this way, wishes that the conscious mind could be repressing may be revealed in one's dreams.
What is the difference between repression and dissociation?
The difference between these two defense mechanisms comes from where they are housed in mind. The psychoanalytic difference between repression and dissociation is that the latter, dissociation, does not get pushed down into the id. Instead, the thoughts, feelings, and memories are categorized into a different parts of the ego. This is in opposition to repression, in which mental information is pushed into the id and separated from conscious thought.
This difference does not account for the general psychological difference of repression and dissociation. Contemporary psychologists in their specific fields may have different perceptions of repression and dissociation. The psychological world has moved on significantly from Freud so that different therapists may have different treatment methods or even definitions of repression and dissociation.
What is repression vs suppression?
What is suppression in human behavior?
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