What Is Repressed Memory Therapy And How Does It Work?
By: Jon Jaehnig
Updated May 06, 2021
Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault
If you've ever heard of "repressed memory therapy," you probably have a few questions about it.
What are repressed memories? Why would your mind repress memories? If the memories are repressed, why would they be important? If repressed memories are often traumatic, wouldn't it be better to leave them repressed?
Whether you're just curious or think that you could benefit from therapy, we'll answer all of these questions as well as provide you resources for further learning.
What Are Repressed Memories?
You may have come across the idea of repressed memories in a clinical setting, but you may also have heard of the idea on television. It's a favorite of soap operas, serious dramas, and daytime talk shows.
Basically, the idea is that some experiences are so hard for the mind to deal with that the mind simply refuses to deal with them. The individual may have other symptoms of the traumatic experience but doesn't remember the event itself.
It may sound a little silly that the mind can pick and choose what it thinks about. However, it's exceedingly common. Most of the time, it isn't because your thoughts are harmful but because you have so many thoughts. If you still don't believe it, think about the last time that you were trying to watch a television program or read a book, but other thoughts kept interrupting you. Most of the time, your mind can keep these thoughts at bay by simply ignoring them, and the idea of repressed memories is similar.
Are Repressed Memories Real?
The question of how the mind would go about repressing a memory brings up an important question: are repressed memories real? It's a rather heavily disputed question.
Some "pure psychologists" - those who study this science in the lab but don't work with it in the field - have doubts about the reality of repressed memories. However, some clinical psychologists - those who keep up on research but spend most of their time working with clients - believe in it.
Pure psychologists have concerns about how the mind, as an organ, would be stimulated to repress a memory. However, the mind is capable of all kinds of things that we still don't fully understand, so repressing memories may not be out of the picture.
On the other hand, clinical psychologists have a lot of what's called "anecdotal evidence" - evidence gained from experience but not backed by scientific study and concrete data. Of course, how would one conduct a study of repressed memories? You can't collect people who have repressed memories if they haven't encountered them in therapy, and therefore likely have no idea that they exist, and many repressed memories encountered in therapy can't be proven afterward. Critics say that this puts them in the realm of things like "past life regression" - it's an interesting idea with lots of stories, but not yet in the realm of proven fact.
If Repressed Memories Do Exist Why Would You Want To Recover Them?
This is a common question regarding repressed memories. If a memory is so painful that you locked it away, why would you want to set it free upon your conscious mind? It sounds scary, and it can be. Some psychologists believe that things like phobias and other psychological disorders may be the result of repressed memories. Again, there is not much scientific evidence for repressed memories, and many conflicting ideas about them in the field of psychology.
How Does Repressed Memory Therapy Work?
How a therapist or counselor may help a client to recover repressed memories varies depending on the client as well as the client's knowledge or awareness of the memories. Some clients seek out repressed memory therapy because they believe that they have repressed memories. Other times, the client is unaware of any repressed memories or even the concept of repressed memories, and it is the therapist or counselor who thinks that the client may have them.
If the therapist or counselor thinks that the client may have repressed memories, they may try an approach like hypnotism (we'll talk more about that in the next section). They also may try more traditional approaches like trying to steer conversations towards memory.
If the client believes that they have a repressed memory, the therapist may be able to guide the conversation more actively.
The Beginning Of Repressed Memory Therapy
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. Freud's theorywas 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 other hypnotists of 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 throughout his career, which spanned the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The idea of hypnotism, much like the idea of repressed memories, has gradually been blown up so much by the media that it seems ridiculous to us now as an actual clinical approach. However, hypnotism is simply an altered state of consciousness. In fact, people can become hypnotized, in a sense, while doing monotonous activities like driving. This is referred to as “highway hypnosis.”
The biggest potential problem with using hypnotism to access the subconscious, potentially including repressed memories, is that the subconscious is largely formed during childhood. That means that a memory that you recover could be one that you had forgotten rather than one you had repressed. Further, many argue that memories that were supposedly suppressed were just memories that the individual was aware of but avoiding relating rather than actually repressing.
More Recent Events
The story of repressed memory therapy doesn't end with Freud. The practice again became very popular in the '80s and '90s. Some repressed memory stories famously ended up in court, and the repressed memories lead to convictions. In other cases, however, the repressed memories were found to be false, and the individual who thought that they remembered them was sued on grounds like defamation. 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 that seemed real.
Optimists believed that this was an accident, while others believed that the therapists had deliberately suggested false memories for the clients to recover to take advantage of the hype and advance their careers. Because it is not grounded in scientific evidence the way that other therapeutic treatment options are, repressed memory therapy can be extremely dangerous and is best to be avoided until more is known about the topic. A licensed therapist can help you cope with past trauma using evidence-based methods.
Further, as repressed memory therapy 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 repressed memory therapy seemed to fade away. Many well-meaning psychologists stopped using the practice to protect their names in an increasingly hostile environment.
Repressed Memory Therapy Today And Where BetterHelp Comes In
As we've mentioned throughout this article, there is still active debate as to whether repressed memories themselves are real.
If you think that you might have repressed memories and would benefit from therapy, you may want to consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist. If you don't have repressed memories but think you might, it's possible you have something else worth working through. Regardless, some people find it helpful to have someone to talk through their memories with whether those memories are repressed or not.
If you do decide to reach out to a counselor or therapist, you may want to consider using BetterHelp. Online therapy has resulted in 98% of users making significant progress (compared to 74% of in-person therapy users), while 94% prefer BetterHelp to face-to-face therapy. Additionally, nearly 100% of BetterHelp users said that they would resume therapy again if needed, compared to approximately just 50% of those using in-person therapy.
We at BetterHelp don't only post educational articles like this one. We also help users like yourself to get quality mental health assistance wherever you are by connecting you with qualified and licensed therapists and counselors. This allows people in remote areas or even abroad to talk to a licensed therapist or counselor anytime, anywhere. You don't have to have an extenuating circumstance to benefit from online therapy. Some people just like the cheaper price tag, convenience, and not needing to worry about seeing their therapist at the grocery store.
Continue reading to find reviews of some of our licensed therapists from people seeking help in working through memories and past events.
“I have really appreciated my subscription to BetterHelp, and have recommended it to a couple 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”
“Muni has changed my life. I truly feel like she understands me and is helping me discover parts of myself I’ve either not been ready to explore in the past or didn’t know were there at all. It’s a gift to have found her.”
No matter your circumstances, past, or needs, therapy can provide the additional tools, support, and listening ear to help achieve greater understanding of ourselves. Take the first step today.
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