Unlocking the mystery of repression psychology

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Repression psychology deals with the feelings and anxieties blocked from conscious thought but remain in our subconscious. It may be essential to managing emotions correctly, yet so few understand how it works or why we experience it.

This branch of psychology has the potential to provide emotional liberation. We may better navigate emotional difficulties and life’s most challenging issues with newfound insight into our consciousness's inner workings.

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Experiencing repressed memories and feelings?

What is repression psychology?

Repression psychology, also simply called repression, is generally considered to be 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.

This is a defense mechanism that can help individuals cope with trauma or stress. It does this by repressing or denying the existence of the traumatizing event. In so doing, individuals may temporarily defend themselves from the unwelcome emotions and circumstances of the past.

Repression psychology is a fascinating yet complex topic of study, as it provides insight into how the human mind works to defend itself from traumatic or painful experiences. This defense mechanism can be unconscious and is commonly seen in social interactions as a form of self-preservation and denial of uncomfortable realities.

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Negative effects of repression psychology

The central negative aspect of repression psychology is that it does not address any deeper issues that may be causing distress in someone's life, such as unresolved trauma or long-term mental health issues that need attention and treatment.

Additionally, studies show that suppressing these thoughts and experiences can lead to further psychological problems if left unresolved for too long. They can eventually resurface as intrusive thoughts or sudden breakdowns at unexpected moments when triggered unexpectedly by something in the environment or an internal thought pattern.

Lastly, repressing one's feelings can lead to unhealthy coping strategies such as substance abuse, avoidance behaviors, self-harm, etc., which will only intensify psychological distress rather than address its underlying root cause(s).

A neuroscientific view of repression psychology

At the neurobiological level, studies show that the hippocampus is integral to remembering experiences or events. To suppress these memories, this research shows that another part of your brain (the lateral prefrontal cortex) must disengage the hippocampal activation to inhibit memory recall. In other words, recalling intrusive memories causes the brain to influence unwanted memories. 

The influence of emotions on memory alteration and suppression

Researchers have also developed theories about how memory can be altered during traumatic events. For example, they've concluded that the amygdala is likely to trigger the brain to recall unpleasant or traumatic memories, which can create the experience of reliving the event. This means that emotions play an integral part in altering memories as they are stored in our brains and can even cause our brains to repress specific memories associated with negative emotions actively. 

Furthermore, research has shown that stress hormones such as cortisol play key roles in suppressing memories associated with negative experiences or events. Cortisol helps manage stress responses by blocking certain areas of our brain that store information about traumatic events. As such, high cortisol levels can lead to increased suppression, making it difficult to remember those experiences or events over time. 

Repression in contemporary psychology

The concept of repression is something that modern psychologists are continuously exploring. Through therapeutic techniques such as hypnosis, therapists help patients delve into their subconscious to uncover forgotten life events. While this type of therapy offers potential benefits, some individuals question the reliability and accuracy it can provide - raising concerns about creating false memories along the way.

In the late 20th century, hypnosis was often used to unlock trauma-induced repressed memories in individuals claiming sexual abuse. Unfortunately, over time it became apparent that these supposedly "lost" recollections could be easily manipulated under hypnotic suggestion - leading many psychologists today to believe they are far less common than initially believed and cannot ever truly be recovered once forgotten or gone for good.

Repression vs. suppression

Repression refers to forgetting about an event or experience due to overwhelming trauma or distress. This can be done unconsciously; people may not even realize their minds are repressing specific memories or experiences until they become aware of them in therapy or other self-exploration. It is believed that repression helps defend people from experiencing too much distress from traumatic events, allowing them to cope better than if they remembered every single detail of a said event. 

Conversely, suppression involves actively trying to forget about something one has experienced or thought. Unlike repression, which happens unconsciously, suppression is a conscious effort to ignore thoughts, feelings, and desires that may cause discomfort or embarrassment. People who engage in this defense mechanism are aware of the feeling or memory but consciously choose not to focus on it as a way of dealing with it. 

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Experiencing repressed memories and feelings?

Benefits of online therapy for repression

When repression of emotions or experiences is left unchecked, it can lead to various mental health issues. Fortunately, therapy can provide an effective way for individuals experiencing repressed emotions to get the help they need and progress toward relief.

Online therapy may be an especially beneficial option for those living with repression symptoms. By offering convenient and flexible scheduling and meetings that can occur in a familiar and comforting environment such as your home, online therapeutic options like BetterHelp can offer individuals a chance to heal from their experience in a safe and productive setting.

Effectiveness of online therapy for repression

Therapy for repression is highly effective in mitigating psychological distress, according to a vast wealth of scientific studies. Overall, these studies have backed up the effectiveness of therapy for repression in helping people become more mindful of their emotional states and thus gain greater control over their lives. They comprehensively establish that psychotherapeutic techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help individuals resolve many of the issues caused by their repressed emotions.

This is accomplished primarily through exploring feelings and identifying negative thought patterns to address the individual's emotional history. The result is typically a process of increased self-discovery, improved mental health functioning, and progress in dealing with various psychological problems related to traumatic experiences or other life stressors.

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Repression is a powerful psychological tool that can shape our emotions and actions. By understanding repression psychology, we can unlock the mysteries of our subconscious mind and use it to our advantage. With this knowledge, we can better manage difficult emotions and address challenging life issues.
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