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Childhood trauma and memory loss: What are repressed memories?

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

A memory concept featuring a cutout of a head and psychological trauma.

Could a traumatic experience be so overwhelming and threatening to a person’s psychological stability that the memory of it becomes ‘repressed’? Some psychotherapists think so.

What Are Repressed Memories?

Repressed memories are memories that a person is unable to consciously recall, even though they remain stored in their memory and negatively impact their life. Although intriguing, the theory is controversial and difficult to research accurately. This is because memory is a fluid process and people’s lives are often impossible to document with complete certainty.  

The theory of repressed memories itself is relatively recent. Though major psychiatric symptoms such as hallucinations, depression, and anxiety have been written about for many centuries, the recovery of repressed memory is a much more recent idea.  The first written descriptions of memory repression do not occur until Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and Kipling’s Captains Courageous written in the 1800s. 

The idea of repressed memory suggests that gaps in memory may be the result of unprocessed traumatic experiences. These are most often childhood experiences as the younger brain is likely to be more vulnerable and subject to being overwhelmed by trauma. The psychiatric diagnosis of repressed memories would be made as a type of Dissociative Amnesia.

Is It Normal Not to Remember Your Childhood?

Even though forgotten memories may be the result of childhood trauma, forgetting parts of your childhood is also a normal part of aging. Many memories from your earliest years are forgotten in a normal process called childhood amnesia. 

Most people have childhood amnesia, which causes them to forget their early childhood years. Between the ages of eight and 10, most people develop a stronger memory that helps them retain some childhood memories. Still, it is possible that some people repress these memories as a result of traumatic experiences. 

Being unable to recall certain childhood memories can cause feelings of distress. If an individual is experiencing otherwise unexplained symptoms of trauma, some therapists will explore the possibility of repressed memories.

If you’re concerned that you might have repressed memories, here are a few indications that further exploration may be helpful:

  • You associate anger or other negative emotions with certain vague memories. 
  • There are gaps in your memory that you can’t explain. 
  • Your memories don’t match with the memories other people in your life share with you. 

Is Memory Reliable?

Memories aren’t ironclad records of past events. Rather, they are a way for people to create meaning in their lives. 

Memory formation is influenced by a number of factors including concrete memory (i.e., things we experienced through our five senses), the general beliefs we have about how the world works, and what other people told us about the events. There is no completely accurate way to separate these things to determine what really happened. 

This is why, if a child is questioned about a potentially traumatic event, it must be done by professionals who know how to do so in a way that doesn’t influence the child’s recall. Once the memory is explored by the child, the memory also changes—and there is no way to go back to the original state.

Since memory can be so unreliable, the emotions and meaning associated with memories are what matter most. They help you understand your purpose and standing in the world. 

People can be influenced to fill in gaps of the memory with inaccurate details or events. If you suspect that you have repressed memories, you’re especially susceptible to this phenomenon. 

What Is Childhood Trauma?

Over two-thirds of children experience a traumatic event by the time they reach the age of 16. Enduring trauma doesn’t necessarily mean that someone will develop repressed memories, but many different types of trauma can cause them. Some of the most common sources of trauma include:

  • Natural disasters
  • Gun violence or other types of violence in your community
  • Sexual, physical, emotional, or any other type of abuse
  • Exposure to domestic violence
  • Neglect
  • Any type of assault
  • Accidents or serious illnesses (for you or a loved one)
  • Unexpected or violent loss of family or friends

How Your Body Remembers Trauma

Even if someone has repressed memories of trauma, their body will likely remember. When someone’s body carries their trauma, it manifests a variety of physical and psychological symptoms, such as:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Mood changes
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Panic attacks
  • Body aches
  • Loss of concentration
  • Jumpiness or heightened awareness
  • Tense muscles

A person may have these symptoms even if they can’t remember the trauma. Sometimes, the presence of these symptoms helps mental health professionals determine if a lack of memories is the result of childhood amnesia or repression. 

PTSD and Memory Loss

Experiencing trauma may cause posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Approximately 8.7% of the US population will have PTSD during their lifetime, and it can affect people of all ages. 

One of the most common symptoms of PTSD is memory loss. Specific details about the trauma may be repressed from memory. This is thought to be a protective function to prevent you from reliving the trauma over and over. Other symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, trouble sleeping, anxiety, and many more. 

Signs of Repressed Childhood Trauma in Adults

Certain signs indicate that someone may have repressed childhood trauma once they reach adulthood, including:

  • Self mutilation or suicide attempts
  • Phobias
  • Certain smells, tastes, textures, places, or words put you on edge 
  • Fear of abandonment or being alone
  • Hypervigilance
  • Hating yourself or having a negative thinking pattern about yourself
  • Flashbacks
  • Being uncomfortable with your body or with being touched
  • Sexual dysfunctions
  • Frequent illness
  • Not understanding your reaction to certain situations

The brain and memories of a person with repressed memories are especially vulnerable. In some cases, attempts to retrieve repressed memories can cause a person’s brain to fabricate false memories. This is part of the reason it’s so important to engage with a therapist to attempt recovery of repressed memories. 

False Memories

A false memory is one that you believe to be true, but it’s either partially or fully made up. People who are trying to recover repressed memories are at risk of developing false memories, particularly if they attempt the process without the help of an experienced professional. 

The effect of creating false memories can be as harmful as actual memories. Family relationships can be shattered, innocent individuals can be accused. Depending on the nature of false memories, mental health treatment may be necessary to remove them. 

How to Recover Repressed Memories

Repressed memories may be recovered. They still exist, but your brain is attempting to protect you by repressing them. This makes it very difficult to remember them. 

Therapy may help you identify or recover repressed memories if you wish. Enlisting a licensed professional with experience in this discipline will give you the highest chance of success and a lower risk of implanting false memories. The most successful techniques for uncovering repressed memories are:

  • Hypnosis
  • Guided imagery
  • Age regression

Therapy for Childhood Trauma

Therapists have a lot of tools at their disposal to help you cope with repressed memories. Therapeutic techniques that can be helpful for this process include:

If you are interested in engaging with a therapist to determine if you have repressed memories, or if you’re actively trying to recover repressed memories, it’s easy to find one. Visit our therapist directory to find a therapist in your area today.

About the author

The editorial team at therapist.com works with the world’s leading clinical experts to bring you accessible, insightful information about mental health topics and trends.

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