Repressed Memories, Dissociative Amnesia, PTSD, and the Memory Wars

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Today you’ll learn three skills for better understanding lost memories, also known as dissociative amnesia or repressed memories. Or at least you’re going to learn my opinion about it. 

I had a ton of comments on my last video about how trauma messes with your memories, and a lot of the comments went like this: “How do you heal from trauma that you can’t remember?” and “I can’t remember large parts of my childhood. Does that mean I was abused?” and “I grew up with a narcissistic parent and can’t remember large parts of my childhood, so there must have been tons of abuse going on.” 

So here’s where we enter a super controversial part of psychology: the topic of repressed and recovered memories. Is it possible to forget an extremely intense experience and then remember it again later? Experts have been fighting over this for decades. 

Now, the the idea of repressed memories goes all the way back to Sigmund Freud, through to the 90s, when therapists accidentally implanted people with false memories, through the courtrooms, and into today, where the idea of repressed memories is still popular among lay people and controversial among therapists and researchers. 

So today you’ll learn three skills for better understanding lost memories, also known as dissociative amnesia or repressed memories. Or at least you’re going to learn my opinion about it. 

Where the Idea of Repressed Memories Comes From

So the idea of repressed memories goes all the way back to Freud. One of his first patients, Anna O., had all sorts of unexplained physical symptoms, and when she began talking with her doctor about her life previously, forgotten memories of trauma came back. And as she talked about them her physical symptoms went away. 

So Freud developed this concept of repression, that current symptoms are all related to something that happened in the past, that we repress the memories to protect ourselves, and that we must analyze our psyche in order to uncover it, integrate it, and then be freed from it. So that’s where this whole process of psychoanalysis came from — the idea of patients laying on the couch talking about their childhood. 

Why Repressed Memories Are Controversial

But this concept of repressed memories has become very controversial. And that’s in part because of the way that memory works. 

Now, most people assume that memory is like a video. Your memory records things as they actually happened and stores those memories away permanently. But memory doesn’t work like that. Memories are highly influenced by our biases and how we’re feeling during or after an event. 

So even Freud learned that many of the things that his patients remembered weren’t actual events. Memories can be altered, implanted, influenced, and straight up created under suggestion. Lots of laboratory experiments have demonstrated that our memories are terribly fickle. 

If you want to see for yourself how this can work, go watch this YouTube video. It’s called Take This Test and Experience How False Memories Are Made. It’s a two-minute video, and it created a false memory for me. So check it out. 

Studies show that people can be influenced to remember things that never happened. They can very strongly believe that something happened that did not, and they can unintentionally make up memories to fill in gaps. 

So if memory isn’t an accurate recording of what actually happened, what is it? Theorists now describe memory not as a repository of past experiences but as a tool that our brain uses to create a stable self-concept. 

Rarely, if ever, are memories exact replicas of the past. Instead, memories are often stitched together into plausible but not necessarily accurate narratives based on beliefs, feelings, intuitions, guesses, and memory fragments. So memories can be created and altered. 

But is it possible to forget something so important as trauma? There’s been a vigorous debate between researchers and clinicians for decades about this issue. But in the last 15 years research has shown that the answer is yes, it is possible. 

Most people have no memories before the age of three, and research shows that many adults who remember being sexually abused as children have periods where they don’t remember being sexually abused. 

In the book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk describes a study where the facts of abuse were established and verified, they were written down, and then the survivors were interviewed years later, and they no longer remembered that abuse that had been written down. 

The problem is that in the 1990s there was a resurgence of repressed memory therapy where clinicians would constantly prompt clients to remember forgotten memories, and then they would use tools like hypnosis to explore missing memories, and this led to the creation of false memories and lots of harm. 

Research showed that the created memories often had the same theme as whatever the clinician was suggesting. So if the clinician suggested sexual abuse, the client would have memories of sexual abuse. If the clinician suggested alien abduction, the client would remember an alien abduction. And if the clinician suggested satanic ritual abuse, then the client would remember satanic ritual abuse. 

So this was a huge problem. This has led many psychologists and researchers to adamantly oppose any type of therapy that seeks to recover repressed memories, and they also would testify against any recovered memory in court.

How I Approach Repressed Memories

Now, I’m a clinician who works with a lot of trauma victims. My personal experience is that they often remember a trauma that they’ve forgotten. 

So for example, I had one client who was abused by her stepfather. She remembered much of the abuse. She decided to press charges. He confessed, and he was actually convicted, which is shocking because that rarely happens. And then afterwards, over a year of therapy, new painful memories would emerge that she hadn’t remembered earlier. 

But I have never intentionally prompted my clients to remember something. I’ve been trained in multiple settings, including at a crisis treatment center, to carefully ask questions in a way that doesn’t suggest or lead to any specific answer. 

In my work in a therapy session I work with trauma in the present moment, not in the past. I just simply don’t try to push clients to remember forgotten memories. 

So based on these studies and my personal experience, I do believe that memories of abuse or trauma can be forgotten. 

Why We Sometimes Forget Trauma

So how is that possible? How could you forget trauma? 

One hypothesis for how a memory could be forgotten is dissociation. So when you’re faced with a danger, maybe something scary or intense, your brain and nervous system shift from a sense of safety to a state of activation — the fight-or-flight response — and then if escape is impossible, it can go into a state of freeze. 

In the freeze state your body has an instinctive response to shut down, to go numb, to detach mentally or emotionally from your current experience. You might feel overwhelmed or numb or confused. And this dissociation may serve a protective function to help defend you against the pain and suffering that you can’t escape. 

It’s also possible that in this state memory isn’t stored in the same way. Your brain reacts differently under stress, as it’s focused on survival. It doesn’t process information in an orderly manner. And trauma memories may be discombobulated or sensory or have large gaps. 

Now, some clinicians have hypothesized that these memories are stored in a way that they can only be retrieved in a specific state. So if you were traumatized by a car crash as a child but you don’t remember it, and then as an adult you see a car crash, that memory may be retrieved because your brain is reminded of how you felt at that time. 

Now, repression is another hypothesis, and again we don’t have evidence for it, but when a memory is too painful or too overwhelming, is it possible that your brain represses it to protect you? That your brain walls it off because you’re not safe enough to face it or you may not have enough skills to deal with that painful memory in this moment? 

Or perhaps you’re still in a dangerous environment or you don’t have the support you need to work through those memories. But then when you’re older or safer or you have new skills, your brain is like, “Oh, okay. I can let my human face this now. I can let my human process these memories now because I know that he can handle it now.” 

I mean, this makes sense to me. But again, it’s not something that can be easily scientifically studied. 

What You Can Do If You Have Repressed Memories

So this whole thing, this whole repressed memory and forgotten trauma memories thing, this can feel a little bit disorienting. Like people might ask themselves, “Are my memories even real?” 

No one can answer that question. There’s no test that can tell the difference between a real remembered event and a created memory. But from a psychological perspective, how we think about and feel about our memories can be informative for what steps we take now, right here in the present moment. 

So what do you do? What do you do if you feel like you can’t remember something really important, or maybe someone even told you about a trauma that you can’t remember?

1. Learn How Memories Work

So I would recommend that the first thing you do is just educate yourself on how memories work. And that’s what I’m trying to do with this video. 

The memories we retrieve, they usually get remembered, but that doesn’t mean they get remembered accurately. So just because you can’t remember something doesn’t mean you have trauma. And memories can get distorted and created and forgotten, and every time you retrieve them you basically alter a memory and then store it again, so they can change over time. 

I also would say be really cautious about social media listicles that say that if you experience this, then you probably have trauma. These are really popular, but they’re also possibly harmful. 

2. Choose a Well-Trained, Ethical Therapist

Second, choose a therapist who holds a safe space for you without pushing you to remember something. 

A therapist should never coach you or hypnotize you to remember something. They shouldn’t suggest that you experienced abuse that you don’t remember based on symptoms. They also shouldn’t push you to cut people off or to press charges or to confront someone. 

They should allow you to make your own choices. They should walk with you as a process consultant, helping you go through the process of clarifying what you think and feel, but allow you to choose what to do with that. 

It’s not the therapist’s job to push you to remember things or to judge whether your memories are true or false. This could be really harmful. The therapist’s job is to help you learn skills to manage your thoughts and feelings and sensations and interpretations in the present moment and help you learn skills to regain a sense of safety and create the life you want to be living. 

I want to clarify something really important. It’s important to not deny the memories of trauma that someone experienced. It is not my job to verify or doubt another person’s experience, and my default setting is to always believe it when someone tells me about their experience of trauma. 

So when I talk about false memories I am in no way condoning the practice of ignoring or denying the trauma that someone has experienced. That happens way too often. What I am condemning is the practice of pushing someone to remember memories or suggesting that if something is forgotten or missing that that’s a sign of trauma. 

3. Focus on Healing in the Present Moment

Number three: work with the symptoms in the present moment. Healing happens right here in the present moment. Work with the bodily sensations in the present moment. Work with the emotions in the present moment. 

It’s not actually the memories of the past that are the problem; it’s how they impact you right here, right now. You don’t need to force yourself to try to come up with the details. You don’t need to remember everything that happens to heal. 

And trying to remember things could make things worse — not because you can’t handle it, but because you might actually create faulty interpretations based on your intense feelings in the present moment. 

Personally, I’m not a therapist who relies on exploring the meaning of memories or digging up forgotten memories or digging up the past. In therapy I focus much more on what emotion are you feeling right now? How do you interpret that experience? What’s going on in your body right now? And then shifting to what do you value, and how can we align your life in that direction? 

What happened to us in the past isn’t what’s hurting us in the present. It’s how we’re continuing to feel and think about those memories, how we interpret them in the present moment that’s continuing to cause us pain. 

When we work with our experiences in the present moment, when we have a good understanding of how memories work, and when we have the support of a good, ethical, and well-trained therapist, I really believe healing is possible. 

I hope you found this video helpful. Thank you for watching, and take care.


(I share both academic and lay-person articles to make learning more accessible)

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