What is repression?
Repression is the unconscious blocking of unpleasant emotions, thoughts, memories or impulses from conscious awareness. It is considered a defense mechanism for the brain to avoid processing distressing thoughts and push them into inaccessible recesses of consciousness.
Disturbing memories do not disappear with repression, they are just out of the conscious mind to the point that often the individual is even unaware of their existence. Repressed memories and emotions, however, can continue to exert influence over a person’s behavior and relationships.
Sigmund Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis, first developed the concept of repression, referring to unconscious blocking of impulses that can lead to objectionable behavior. The cornerstone of Freud’s psychoanalytic treatment was to help his patients recall repressed memories, which he believed could relieve them of their mental distress.
Most of Freud’s specific techniques and assertions later proved mistaken or inaccurate, but his concepts continue to influence thought in the psychology profession. In contemporary psychology, repression most commonly refers to repressed memories and emotions rather than undesirable impulses.
Present-day psychologists suggest that repression of memories is rare; in fact, trauma most commonly induces the opposite reaction. People with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have symptoms that stem almost entirely from the all-too-vivid memories of the incident playing on repeat in their minds.
What is an example of repression?
Repression may sometimes be confused with suppression, but there is a distinction. “Suppression” refers to a person consciously pushing away distressing thoughts in order to focus on reality and activities of daily life.
Repression, on the other hand, is unconscious blanking of distressing memories by the brain, a way to cope with painful emotions.
Following are some examples of repression:
- Memories of childhood abuse are often repressed. An individual may not remember the abuse in adulthood, but it can lead to anxiety and difficulty in forming relationships as an adult.
- Phobias, such as the fear of certain animals, are likely the result of a painful encounter with those animals in childhood. The person may not remember the experience, but continues to have an inexplicable fear.
- Slips of the tongue, known as “Freudian slips,” when people accidentally say something when they want to say something else, may possibly reflect repressed thoughts.
Why does repression happen?
Repression of memories is thought to happen because they are too overwhelming and distressing to process and come to terms with. Also known as dissociative amnesia, repression of memories may happen because an individual dissociates themselves while undergoing trauma, to be able to survive through it.
Repression of emotions, on the other hand, often happens because expressing them may be perceived as unacceptable behavior socially and culturally. For instance, in many cultures, men are discouraged from expressing sadness or fear, because they are seen as signs of weakness. Anger is a negative emotion that is often repressed.
Is it healthy to repress emotions?
Both repression and suppression of distressing memories and emotions may be helpful in the short-term to make it through a difficult period and avoid total mental collapse, but both trauma responses are unhealthy in the long run. It is healthier to address the reason for your problematic emotions and behaviors and seek a better way to handle them.
Mental health issues can manifest physically as pain, fatigue, digestive issues and sleep problems. Research suggests that emotional repression can decrease the immune system’s function, which in turn can lead to frequent illnesses.
How do you tell if you have repressed emotions?
It is not always possible to know if you have repressed emotions, but some of the following behaviors may indicate repression problems:
- You are unable to talk to people about how you feel
- You habitually distract yourself with other activities to avoid thinking about anything that distresses you
- You think it is not a good thing to openly display emotions
- You are uneasy when others display emotions
- You are unable to form intimate relationships
- You overreact to trivial things when you are actually sad or angry
Some of the following are possible indications of repressed memories:
How do you release repressed emotions?
If you feel you have a problem with repressed emotions, the first step may be to acknowledge it. You could try and open up to people close to you and address the reason for your repressing emotions. It might be a good idea to also seek help from a mental health professional.
Can repressed memories be recalled?
Repressed memories may sometimes unexpectedly resurface triggered by something associated with them, such as a word, smell or an object. Or, it could be visiting a place or meeting a person that reminds one of a repressed memory.
Retrieving repressed memories may have a therapeutic effect for some people, but for some, especially if the memories are traumatic, it may actually make things worse.
Many therapists use methods such as hypnosis as therapy, to access repressed memories, but there is no scientific evidence to support the efficacy of such therapies.
The therapeutic value of retrieving repressed memories is a controversial concept that created a lot of interest in the late 1900s, when many adults reported memories of childhood abuse they hadn’t been aware of until undergoing therapy.
The controversy arises because retrieved memories are not necessarily accurate or reliable. Eminent researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have demonstrated how easily the human mind forms false memories with suggestive questioning. Current scientific thought is that repression and retrieval of traumatic memories may happen, but extremely rarely.
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