What Are Repressed Memories And Therapy For Repressed Memories?

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 1, 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.

For many, traumatic memories can be a source of stress, life challenges, and even mental health conditions. Many types of therapy are available to help those who have experienced past trauma. One such therapeutic approach is repressed memory therapy, sometimes called recovered memory therapy. This form of counseling targets the subconscious, cognitive processing, and traumatic events and memories that people may not be aware of. Repressed memories and therapy for repressed memories are controversial topics that experts continually debate. Before choosing any type of therapy, research the current statistics on treatment and make an informed decision.

Exploring difficult memories can be confusing

Recommended change: Defining repressed memories: What exactly are they?

Repressed memories are said to be the result of challenging experiences or traumatic experiences that are difficult for the mind to process, resulting in lost memories. In some cases, a repressed memory may be from childhood trauma or childhood abuse. In others, an individual might experience symptoms from a traumatic event. A repressed memory may feel blurry or unclear, or a person may not remember the event at all. These “forgotten memories” are known as repressed memories and are commonly seen in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Are repressed memories real?

Repressed memories have been a subject of debate in psychology since some of the first psychologists developed psychotherapy. Some researchers don’t believe it’s possible for people to repress memories. On the other hand, some mental health professionals claim to have worked with clients experiencing memory repression. Some believe people repress memories as a defense mechanism against difficult feelings that the memory would evoke; others do not believe this theory. This debate is often referred to as the "memory wars."

research study published in Psychological Science showed a clear divide between clinicians and researchers on the topic. According to the study, around 60% to 80% of therapists, clinicians, and psychoanalysts who responded to the survey agreed that traumatic memories could be repressed and retrieved in therapy. In comparison, less than 30% of research-oriented psychologists believed it.  

Some researchers may have concerns about how the mind would be stimulated to recover a repressed memory. On the other hand, some therapists may have anecdotal evidence they have gained from their experience with clients not backed by peer-reviewed studies and concrete results. 

Additionally, repressed memories encountered in therapy may be difficult or impossible to prove afterward. According to the American Psychological Association, experienced clinical psychologists state that the phenomenon of recovered memory is rare.

It’s important to note that repressed memories are different from other mental health conditions like bipolar disorder and dissociative amnesia, which can both involve lapses in memory.

Why would you want to recover repressed memories?

Some people may wonder why someone would want to recover repressed memories if they were painful or traumatic. Mental health professionals offering recovered memory therapy typically believe that mental health issues, phobias, and challenging symptoms might result from repressed memories of past trauma. By exploring a recovered memory through repressed memory therapy, they believe that people may better understand the origins of their mental health challenges. 

For example, a person may recover a traumatic memory of child abuse during the course of therapy. By discussing this recovered memory, they may better understand the mental health challenges, feelings, and relationships they experience as adults. 

2021 study shows that repressed memories may not exist. However, there could be other causes for this phenomenon, such as forgetting a traumatic memory or misinterpreting a previous memory as a traumatic event even if it was not. People may remember these events without trying or recover them through therapy like trauma counseling. It may not be a conscious effort to remember the traumatic event in all cases. At times, a false memory may arise when attempting to recover repressed memories.


Repressed memory therapy: How it began and what it is today

Some individuals may seek out repressed memory counseling because they believe they have repressed memories impacting their lives. Despite the ongoing debate around this type of therapy, some therapists or counselors may try an approach like hypnosis, guided imagery, or age regression therapy. They might also try a traditional approach to steer conversations toward memory.

History of repressed memories and the subconscious mind

The first psychologist to bring the idea of repressed memories into the mainstream was Sigmund Freud. Freud regularly worked with theories surrounding the subconscious, particularly concerning childhood trauma and forgotten or repressed memories. 

As a result, discovering the subconscious elements that caused a person to think, feel, or behave unwantedly was a focus of Freud's treatment. 

One of the ways that Freud and others in his time would try the subconscious was through hypnotism. However, over time, he stopped using it in his practice. Some therapists still use hypnosis today, but it is not as popular as in Freud's time. 

Many argue that memories that were supposedly suppressed were memories of childhood that the individual was aware of but avoiding rather than repressing. This avoidance may have been due to discomfort, anxious feelings, abuse, fear of reprisal from a family, or a negative impact on their life.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Exploring difficult memories can be confusing

Recent significance of repressed memories 

After Freud’s time, the practice of memory therapy again became popular in the 1980s and '90s with cases of abuse, including sexual abuse. Some repressed memory stories ended up in court, and the repressed memories led to convictions. In other cases, however, the repressed memories were found to be examples of false memory. Some scientists suggested that the therapists had planted the memories while the client was in an altered state of consciousness, or the clients' brains conjured false memories of the traumatic events that seemed genuine.

Some believed this was an accident, while others believed the therapists had deliberately suggested false memories for the clients to recover. They believed that sensitive clients were more susceptible to believing the trauma that a therapist suggested about their memories. Further, as repressed memory theories grew in popularity, cases of false memories became more common. People began to report alien abductions and other potentially unlikely events. Gradually, the credibility of this therapy faded away within the psychological community. 

Asking for help: Counseling options

Repressed memories continue to be actively debated. Researchers may not be sure if specific experiences can be remembered through memory therapy techniques such as guided imagery. Because it is not grounded in medically reviewed scientific evidence as other forms of treatment like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), repressed memory treatment may not be a popular first choice for treatment. However, there are many other types of therapy available. 

A licensed therapist may help you cope with past trauma or distressing symptoms using evidence-based methods targeting abuse and trauma through talk therapy and cognitive processing. For some individuals living with trauma or painful memories, discussing such personal topics may feel challenging and vulnerable in person. Speaking with a professional in a space where you feel comfortable and at ease may be helpful. In these cases, people may opt for online therapy. With online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp, you can find a therapist from any location with a solid internet connection. Research has shown that online therapy can be an effective treatment option for individuals experiencing the effects of trauma. 

For instance, one study examined the effectiveness of an internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy program for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The study found that the individuals who received treatment experienced significant improvements in symptom severity, allowing researchers to conclude that internet-based therapy proved a viable treatment alternative for PTSD with large effect sizes and sustained treatment effects.

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“I have appreciated my subscription to BetterHelp and have recommended it to a couple of friends. My therapist helped me get through a really difficult time. It was such a relief knowing she would respond immediately when I needed support. And even when our conversations were difficult, she always pulled me through. I have more confidence in my ability to refute anxiety and face it, rather than avoid and give power to old memories. Thanks, B”


There is an ongoing debate around repressed memories and repressed memory therapy, but it may be an interesting topic to explore. Ensure you do research before partaking in any form of therapy, and only work with a licensed and experienced counselor. If you are living with trauma or challenging memories that you would like support with, consider reaching out to a counselor through an online platform or within your area for further guidance and support.

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