What Are Repressed Memories And Repressed Memory Therapy?

Updated December 8, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If you've ever heard of "therapy for repressed memories," you may have a few questions about it. For instance, what are repressed memories, and are they real? Does repressed memory therapy work? Why would your mind bury certain memories? If the memories are repressed, why would they be important? 

Repressed memories and therapy for repressed memories are controversial topics that are still widely debated. Here, we'll explore all of these questions as well as provide you with additional resources for support.

Exploring Difficult Memories Can Be Confusing

What Are Repressed Memories?

You may have come across the idea of repressed memories in a clinical setting, but you may have also heard of the idea on television—it is sometimes referenced in soap operas and dramas, for example.

The basic idea behind repressed memories is that some experiences are so hard for the mind to deal with that the mind simply refuses to accept them. The individual may have other symptoms from the difficult event but will not have a memory of the event itself.

Are Repressed Memories Real?

This topic brings up an important question: are repressed memories real? It is a rather heavily disputed question. The controversy around this question is sometimes referred to as the “memory wars.” 

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

Some researchers may have concerns about how the mind would be stimulated to repress a memory. On the other hand, some therapists may have a lot of "anecdotal evidence"—evidence gained from their experience with clients, for example, but not backed by peer-reviewed studies and concrete result. Moreover, many repressed memories encountered in therapy can be difficult or even impossible to prove afterward. 

According to the American Psychological Association, experienced clinical psychologists state that “the phenomenon of a recovered memory is rare.”

Why Would You Want To Recover Repressed Memories?

If a memory is so painful that you may have locked it away, why would you want to set it free in your conscious mind? Some believe that things like phobias and other symptoms of psychological disorders may be the result of repressed memories. Again, there is not yet much scientific evidence for repressed memories and many conflicting ideas about them are discussed in the fields of psychology and cognitive science.

Therapy For Repressed Memories: History And Recent Events

Some individuals may seek out repressed memory counseling because they believe that they have repressed memories that are impacting their lives. Despite the ongoing debate around repressed memory therapy, some therapists or counselors may try an approach like hypnosis, guided imagery, or age regression techniques. They also may try more traditional approaches like trying to steer conversations towards memory.

History And How It Started

The idea of repressed memories goes back a long way. The first psychologist to bring the idea into the mainstream was Sigmund Freud. Freud regularly worked with ideas and theories surrounding the subconscious, particularly as it pertained to childhood trauma and forgotten or repressed memories. Freud's theory was that there are parts of the mind that we can regularly access and parts that we can't. The parts that we can't are called the "subconscious." While we can't deliberately access the subconscious, according to Freud, it still has a lot to do with how we think, feel, and behave. As a result, discovering the subconscious elements that caused a person to think, feel, or behave in an unwanted way was important but difficult.

One of the ways that Freud and others in his time would try to access the subconscious was through hypnotism. This idea has since fallen largely out of vogue, and Freud himself stopped using it in his clinical practice.

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

Exploring Difficult Memories Can Be Confusing

Recent Events

The story of repressed memory doesn't end with Freud. The practice of memory therapy again became very popular in the 1980s and '90s with cases such as child 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 simply conjured false memories of the traumatic events that seemed real.

Some believed that this was an accident, while others believed that the therapists had deliberately suggested false memories for the clients to recover. Further, as repressed memory theories grew in popularity, more and more cases of less and less believable memories began to pour in. People began to report things like alien abductions. Gradually, the credibility of this therapy seemed to fade away. 

Online Therapy Can Help

As we've mentioned throughout this article, there is still active debate as to whether repressed memories themselves are legitimate and can be remembered through techniques of memory therapy such as guided imagery. Because it is not grounded in medically reviewed scientific evidence the way that other treatment options are, repressed memory treatment should be scrutinized and not thought of lightly.

A licensed therapist can help you cope with past trauma using evidence-based methods that tackle abuse and trauma through talk therapy. For some individuals living with trauma or difficult memories, it may feel very difficult and vulnerable to discuss such personal topics, and speaking with a professional in a space where you feel comfortable and at ease may be helpful. With online therapy through BetterHelp, you can speak with a therapist wherever you feel most at ease, so long as you have an internet connection. 

Research has shown that online therapy can be an effective treatment option for individuals experiencing the effects of trauma. For instance, one research 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 the treatment experienced significant improvements in PTSD severity and other psychopathological symptoms, allowing researchers to conclude that internet-based therapy “proved to be 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”

Takeaway

There is ongoing debate around repressed memories and repressed memory therapy, but it can be an interesting topic to explore. There are also plenty of other therapeutic approaches available. If you are living with trauma or difficult memories that you would like support processing with a trained, licensed professional, online therapy may be able to help. Take the first step.

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