Do We Really Repress Painful Memories?

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April 4, 2019
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The quick answer is yes, we really do repress painful memories. Not all bad memories are repressed. People still remember things like someone close to them passing away or abuse during childhood. However, there are certain painful memories our brains allow us to forget on a conscious level. It is our body’s way of protecting us and our feelings from really painful experiences that could cause emotional distress to remember. There are individuals who went through serious trauma but the brain locks it away so the person is unaware on a conscious level. This can happen even on a smaller scale. Imagine that you went through a period of time during your teenage years struggling with depression and anxiety. However, eventually you were able to overcome those struggles and find yourself currently living a life without chronic depression and anxiety. Over time, your brain might have allowed you to forget certain details of that time of your life. If you were to ask someone who walked with you during that tough time in your life, they might bring up certain details you had forgotten. Whether it is as big as trauma or a period of time that is painful, our brains work to repress those memories.

How Does It Work?

The brain can repress memories in efforts to help people cope. Especially in situations of trauma, those experiences can results in highly difficult and a times even debilitating emotional and mental consequences. Memory repression occurs in effort to help people continue life. When triggers occur that potentially remind people of the unwanted memory, it taps into the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that provides impulse control. That control allows us to prevent undesirable behaviors such as remembering a painful experience. The prefrontal cortex tells the hippocampus, the area of the brain that involves accessing old memories and creating new ones, to inhibit access to the memory.

How Does It Impact Us?

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Some research has found that intentional repression of memories can make our brain slower. It can make it more difficult for us to recover other memories or filing away new memories. While repressed memories often live in the subconscious, they can often still cause major issues over time. The memories can be triggered causing certain reactions or emotions that mirror symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. While a person might not consciously remember something like a trauma even they repressed, their mind and body has the ability to react and respond to the memory being triggered. Whether it involves conscious attempts to repress memories or it happens on a subconscious level, at times memory repression can cause difficulty in a person’s life.

If you sense you have repressed trauma or you are experiencing symptoms that might indicate the presence of a past trauma, it can be helpful to find ways to work through it. Accessing painful memories, especially traumatic events, needs to be done in partnership with a trained mental health professional. Doing something like trauma work can help you manage unwanted symptoms and even find healing.

Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology.  Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.