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What Are Repressed Memories?

A person’s memory is the bank of all the experiences they have lived through. People remember what they ate for breakfast that day, where they were for historic events, how they felt when they accomplished big milestones, even sometimes what they wore to a special occasion.

Due to the plasticity of the human brain, a person’s memory can also be manipulated, falsely planted, and in some cases, repressed completely. Some memories are simply forgotten and can be found again when someone helps them remember – a process known as “jogging one’s memory.” Some memories are locked away and surprise or even scare you when they pop up. Repressed memories are often the latter.

When Memories Are Hidden

Repressed memories are memories that are unconsciously locked away in a person’s brain to return at a later time. The term “repressed” often means that an aspect of a person or memory is hidden or forced into hiding – just like someone’s personality or beliefs can be repressed if they are deemed inappropriate by society. Sometimes whole time periods (a day, a week, a month, even years) can be blocked out until the day the memories come back.

Repressed memories are typically the result of traumatic experiences that the brain has stifled in order to survive. Someday, when the person feels safe and their guard is down, these memories will pop up to be processed. In other cases, a trigger in the person’s life forces the repressed memories to the surface.

Repressed memories can be very damaging to a person’s life when they return. They will have to process a lot of trauma while learning coping strategies to help them fit this memory into their present life. For many, experiencing repressed memories is a scary and horrible experience – they are essentially forced to relive their trauma.

How Memory Works

Scientists have not fully worked out all the intricacies of memory, but researchers who conducted a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study have a firm grasp on the subject. Memory is the brain’s tracking and bookkeeping of a person’s experiences. Memory is subjective because a person can only live their memories and perceive their own experiences. However, all humans rely on memory to learn.

The researchers used a flash of light to inactivate and reactivate memories and prove that neurons in the brain play an active role in memory. According to researcher Roberto Manilow, M.D., Ph.D., “Our results add to the mounting evidence that the brain represents a memory by forming assemblies of neurons with strengthened connections or synapses. Further, the findings suggest weakened synapses likely disassembles neuronal assemblies to inactivate a memory”.

As memories are formed, these neurons form strong bonds. If the brain feels that it will need a certain memory to learn in the future (a survival tactic), it will likely retain the strong bonds between neurons. If the memory is weak or seems unnecessary, the bonds between neurons will disassemble and allow the memory to fade.

This approach to memory tracking does not account for or discount how repressed memories are repressed, or how people remember things they had previously forgotten. However, this approach does explain how some people seem to remember everything, while others seem very forgetful. The difference is in how their neurons form bonds.

The Significance and Controversy of Repressed Memories

According to a 2019 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the validity of repressed memories in courtrooms, public opinion, and other areas is a complicated issue. Called the “Memory Wars,” complex discussions over repressed memories were heavily debated in scientific communities due to noteworthy court cases.

People who had suffered trauma were bringing forth repressed memories as firsthand accounts of what had happened to them. The psychological community was torn as repressed memories were one thing, yet false memories were a threat. False memories are planted or imagined memories that still feel very real to the person. The concern about repressed memories was that if they could hold someone accountable legally, could false memories be mistaken for repressed memories and do the same? The debate continues today.

Repressed Memories Are Real

Though sometimes controversial, repressed memories are real, and many people who have experienced trauma have these valid memories. Repressed memories are nothing to be ashamed of. If you are experiencing repressed memories, you should be able to process them freely. Therapies like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) can help you process repressed memories.

Some people remember traumatic things and feel the need to hold those responsible for their trauma accountable. There is no “right way” to deal with repressed memories, but your mental and physical health should be at the forefront of your healing every step of the way.

Trauma and repressed memories often go hand-in-hand. Those who suffer from repressed memories were likely protected by their brain from the ill effects that processing trauma can bring. As the brain’s way of survival, the memory was buried. But no solid memory stays buried forever, and working through trauma is very important for healing. If you have unresolved trauma, repressed memories that keep popping up, or addiction issues from coping with repressed memories, call RECO Intensive today. At RECO Intensive, we understand that you never asked for repressed memories, but must now deal with them. Our professional staff and experienced alumni can offer a myriad of therapies, treatment options, and living situations catered specifically to your needs. You deserve to feel happy and unburdened by past trauma, addiction, or mental illness. We can help you process your repressed memories and move on with your life. Call us today at (561) 464-6533. Let’s get back to a brighter future. 

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