What Is Repression? Psychology, Examples, And Cause & Effects

Updated October 9, 2022 by ReGain Editorial Team

At one point or another, most of us may have pushed away uncomfortable memories or thoughts, intending to deal with them at another time. 

However, some individuals have buried those memories so deep within themselves so frequently that neurosis develops and can even extend to a high level of amnesia. This psychological process is called repression, also known as motivated forgetting or dis-associative amnesia. It is a type of defense mechanism which plays a key role in the theory of psychoanalysis.

What Is Repression?

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Repression is a psychological attempt to unconsciously forget or block unpleasant, uncomfortable or distressing memories, thoughts, or desires from conscious awareness. These thoughts or memories are directed into areas of the subconscious mind that are not easily completely unaware of their existence.

defense mechanism, by definition, is a strategy employed by the ego to spare a person from feelings of pain or discomfort. Repression is one of many kinds of defense mechanisms employed by the ego. The purpose of repression and other defense mechanisms is to ensure that whatever is deemed unacceptable or anxiety-inducing is prevented from coming into the conscious mind and creating negative feelings or emotions.

It is important to note that repression is more complex than avoiding or forgetting something, which is suppression. Although they are easily confused, repression and suppression are two different things. Repression is an unconscious forgetting that the individual does not know that memory or thought exists. In contrast, suppression is a deliberate and purposeful pushing away thoughts, memories, or feelings out of conscious awareness. Both repression and suppression may negatively affect the human psyche and relationships, with one study revealing that suppression is associated with lower life satisfaction and lower academic satisfaction.

If repression were successful, then the anxiety or guilt surrounding that thought or memory would ultimately disappear. But, as much as a repressor tries, those memories and impulses do not disappear and will affect their behavior and relationships in potentially significantly negative ways.

Sigmund Freud And Repression

Sigmund Freud originally developed the concept of repression as part of his famed psychoanalytic theory. As a definition, Freud believed repression to be the unconscious prevention of dangerous drives or impulses, which would lead to unacceptable behaviors.

With difficulty, Freud tried to help his patients recall their past and consciously bring them to awareness. He found that there was some mechanism at work that prevented that from happening. This intense struggle led Freud to give the name ‘repression’ to the hypothetical process.

Freud believed repression played a crucial role in the human psyche and was the most important defense mechanism, declaring that the concept is “the cornerstone on which the whole structure of psychoanalysis rests.” His entire theory was built on it; he firmly believed that bringing unconscious

thoughts into awareness could alleviate psychological distress.

Repression In Contemporary Psychology

Psychologists often refer to repression as blocking painful memories and not necessarily censoring forbidden impulses as Freud originally meant it.

Repressed memory therapy is controversial, with therapists utilizing hypnosis to retrieve repressed memories of sexual abuse in the late 20th century. However, it was found that in some cases, the abuse never occurred, which led to the idea that people are highly suggestible when under hypnosis.

Mainstream psychologists today often believe that repressing memories is not common and is quite rare.

How Is Repression Caused?

Repression may occur after a traumatic event. Individuals who have been through psychological trauma may experience a numbing that involves blocking out the memory or feelings associated with the particular event. On the other hand, traumatic events have been known to strengthen the memory of the incident, causing the individual to relive it over and over again in vivid memory.

A person may also use repression due to sexual or aggressive thoughts and impulses that they want to hide into the unconscious mind to prevent feelings of guilt.

What Are The Effects Of Repression?

Forcing threatening and disturbing thoughts or impulses into unconsciousness may result in many mental health issues. However, a repressor may not know where these behaviors come from, as the reason may often be hidden from the conscious view. There may be signs that show whether or not a person is repressing a memory.

Repression may lead to intense anxiety, pain, dread, or psychological distress. Neurotic symptoms may develop from it, resulting in a distortion from reality and dysfunctional, illogical, or self-destructive behaviors.

It can manifest itself in vivid dreams that express the fears, anxieties, and desires a person keeps hidden from their awareness. Indeed, Freud is widely known to believe that dreams are a way to look into the unconscious mind.

Manifestations may occur in slips of the tongue, also known as ‘Freudian slips.’ This is an error in the speech where a person says something different than intended. Freud believed that physical reactions, speech, or memory errors might result from repression and ultimately reveal what a person truly thinks or feels. Repression can emerge in physiological ways, with reports in the past linking repression to a higher risk for asthma and illnesses. A Stanford University School of Medicine study of 120 managers and engineers at an aerospace company found that the repressors had higher blood pressure than non-repressors.

Another study by the Yale School of Medicine found that in the 312 patients treated there, repressors were more prone to infectious diseases as they had lower levels of disease-fighting cells, and if they did get sick, they were more likely to wait too long to seek help.

Despite physiological reactions, repressors may tend to ignore these signs or symptoms. This behavior is believed to originate from their childhood upbringing. If a parent was neglectful or abusive, the child might go into survival mode by repressing their intense emotions to appear well-behaved.

Furthermore, repression may lead to a decrease in the quality of relationships. Gary E. Schwartz, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Yale Medical School, said in a 1988 article in The New York Times, “As adults, repressors tend to be overly concerned with meeting other people’s needs. They are very dependable and often very successful. But their marriages do poorly because they are unable to engage emotionally in intimate relationships.”

Repressing may take a significant toll on mental and physical health, but those who do repress may still contain their cool. “Repressers tend to be rational and in control of their emotions. They see themselves as people who don’t get upset about things, cool under stress. You see it in the competent surgeon or lawyer who values not letting his emotions shade his judgment,” explains Daniel Weinberger, a psychologist at Stanford University.

This is not to say that regression cannot be effective in some ways in the short term; one study found that using a repressive coping mechanism led to less depression in lung cancer patients. However, it has largely been shown to have detrimental effects on a person’s well-being in the long term, and the higher the repression, the higher the anxiety or dysfunction.

It is worth noting that even if repression does exist, it does not mean there is an underlying mental health disorder.

Examples Of Repression

An example of repression would be if a dog bit an individual during their childhood. This may develop into a phobia of dogs, but the person may not remember where this fear originated from.

Another example of repression would be if an individual who has been in a car accident does not remember the event and develops a fear of driving without knowing where the fear stems from.

An example of repression is an individual who experienced childhood abuse but has no recollection of it as an adult, which results in difficulty forming healthy relationships.

Treatment For Repression

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Repression is a coping mechanism that may have helped an individual survive a difficult situation or experience. Still, in many cases, it only brings disruption to their current health and relationships. Finding a safe space and talking to a trusted person may help uncover traumas and learn to rebuild an individual’s inventory of emotions.

Because the repressed thoughts and emotions are not readily available for an individual to, seeking help from a licensed mental health professional may be a beneficial solution to approach repression. Online therapy, like ReGain, can match you with a professional that specializes in your particular needs.

Psychotherapy and other therapeutic approaches such as recovered-memory therapy from a licensed professional may be effective treatments for treating repression and seek to gradually uncover repressed thoughts, fears, and memories back to the surface of consciousness. They may do this by examining the repression through the afflicted’s dreams. Effective therapy may reduce feelings of anxiety around the repressed memory or impulse and help the repressor experience the anger or sadness they need to feel to process the incident.

The Takeaway

Repression is a coping mechanism used by individuals to overcome trauma, threat, or unwanted thoughts or feelings.  However, if a person identifies with the effects of repression above and is experiencing debilitating anxiety, behaviors, and physiological problems, it may be helpful to seek a mental health professional. A licensed professional at ReGain may be able to help.

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