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Repressed Memory: Definition, Symptoms & Therapy

Instructor: Quentin Shires

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

Learn what repressed memory is, 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 a Repressed Memory?

In September 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 is difficult to monitor exactly what causes a repressed memory because what is 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 are 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 is hypothesized that a repressed memory occurs because our brain is telling our bodies that we can't handle the reality of trauma.

Symptoms of a Repressed Memory

Generally, you cannot 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, 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 (PTSD). Although people with PTSD know that they have experienced a trauma, they might not necessarily remember all of the details via repressed memories. It is 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.

Therapy for a Repressed Memory

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.

One popular therapeutic treatment is called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). EMDR was designed to help patients alleviate psychological distress associated with traumatic memories by following an eight-step process. Using a combination of eye-movements and psychotherapeutic techniques, therapists guide their patients through the traumatic event, combining the realistic side of the brain to that with the creative, creating a sense of survival instead of despair.

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