Repressed Memory: Definition, Symptoms & Therapy

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  • 0:04 What Is Repressed Memory?
  • 1:34 Repressed Memory Symptoms
  • 2:50 Repressed Memory Therapy
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Quentin Shires

Quentin has taught psychology and other social science classes at the university level and is considered a doctoral colleague at Capella University.

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Learn what repressed memory is, the different symptoms that are presented, and how to treat it. Afterwards, take a quiz to see if you have what it takes to identify repressed memory.

What Is Repressed Memory?

In September of 1969, George Franklin Senior stood trial for murdering an eight-year-old girl, witnessed by his daughter, Eileen. Susan Kay Nason was beaten to death with a rock in the back of a van and laid there covered in blood for Eileen to see. It was not until 1990 that Eileen was able to remember these horrible events from 1969 because she experienced a repressed memory. Repressed memories are memories that have been unconsciously blocked due to the memory being associated with a high level of stress or trauma.

Repressed memories occur from a wide range of stress levels and experiences of trauma. It's difficult to monitor exactly what causes a repressed memory because what's considered stressful or traumatic for one individual may not be for another. Typically, stressful or traumatic events, such as childhood sexual abuse, rape, serious accidents, being the victim of a crime, the loss of a loved one, and the experience of a war, have been associated with repressed memories.

So why do we forget certain events through a repressed memory? This is a simple answer: protection. Like other psychological disorders, repressed memory serves to protect us from the trauma and stress levels from the incident that we're experiencing. Many psychologists and clinicians also agree that a repressed memory protects us from other extreme emotions, such as anger, fear, and negative beliefs. It's hypothesized that a repressed memory occurs because our brain is telling our bodies that we can't handle the reality of trauma.

Repressed Memory Symptoms

Generally, you can't tell if someone has a repressed memory simply by just looking at them. This is because individuals that have a repressed memory do not know that they actually have one. There are other symptoms that can be spotted that tie themselves to a repressed memory; however, keep in mind that these symptoms can also be indicative of other mental health conditions.

Depression can be an indicator that someone could have repressed memories. Although not every person who suffers from depression has a repressed memory or memories, studies have found that individuals who entered therapy for depression or sleep disturbances were more likely to bring up repressed memories during clinical sessions.

Sleep disturbances could also be an indicator of a repressed memory. Individuals who experience a trauma can be diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD). Although people with PTSD know that they've experienced a traumatic event or events in their lives, they might not necessarily remember all of the details via repressed memories. It's through this psychological diagnosis that they can experience sleep disturbances due to their bodies being placed on high alert through stress and anxiety of the trauma. Sleep disturbances can include having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or even experiencing a restless sleep and waking up tired or lethargic.

Repressed Memory Therapy

Therapy can be targeted for people that have experienced PTSD. Victims of trauma can seek therapy to help them move through the trauma, thereby recovering memories and working through the difficult emotions. Therapy involving repressed memory has actually been quite difficult to create over the years. While older forms of therapy, like recovered memory, have largely had their validity discounted thanks to countless cases of false positives and the creation of trauma themselves, there have thankfully been different, more valid forms of treatment developed and that are used to treat people with PTSD who are experiencing repressed memories.

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Additional Activities

Prompts About Repressed Memory:

Essay Prompt 1:

In approximately one page, write an essay that defines repressed memories, explains what causes a memory to be repressed, and analyzes why memories are repressed. Be sure to provide examples of specific types of trauma that are often linked to repressed memories.

Example: Trauma like sexual abuse or war combat can cause repressed memories.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay of approximately two to three paragraphs that details the link between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and repressed memory.

Example: A person with PTSD might have repressed certain details about the traumatic event they experienced.

Essay Prompt 3:

Write an essay of at least three to four paragraphs that describes eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Be sure to include analysis of how and why EMDR can work for those who have repressed memories.

Example: EMDR can be used to reframe negative thoughts associated with the repressed memory.

Graphic Organizer Prompt:

Make a poster, chart, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists the signs that can indicate that a person has a repressed memory.

Example: Sleep disturbances, such as sleep that is not restful, can be a sign of a repressed memory.

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