(Trigger Warning: Descriptions of sexual abuse and childhood trauma. Reader discretion advised.)
A memory pushed deep into the unconscious state, that suddenly emerges out of nowhere, and might make you wish there was an option of taking the Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind route. Let's talk about repressed memories.
"Repressed memories are memories that cannot be easily accessed by one’s conscious mind. The mind walls it off or ‘forgets’ it to ensure the safety of the person," Syeda Lameeya Parween, a counselling psychologist, tells FIT.
Why Do Repressed Memories Return?
These are memories of experiences that were so traumatic that they overwhelm one's sense of self, thereby making it difficult to deal with them while they’re happening.
"Such memories might come back when the person is in a safe enough space to process them – when these memories are not a threat to their survival. Earlier, processing or dealing with such memories might have been too painful or unsafe, so our minds protect us by ‘forgetting’ or repressing them."Syeda Lameeya Parween, Counseling Psychologist
What Are The Different Ways Repressed Memories Return?
"It all came back to me first when I was going through puberty. Exploring my sexuality was something I was very uncomfortable to venture on. The incident came back as a flashback, with every minute detail and it made me feel vulnerable and unsafe in my surroundings," says Sima (name changed), who was sexually abused when she was a four-year-old child. Sima's abuser was known to her family.
The incident stopped her from exploring herself and being comfortable in her own skin. That repressed memory came back to her even when she was being intimate with her partner for the first time.
"Every time I brought it up, my mother would ask me to just forget about it. She already knew because I had told her when it actually happened. I felt deceived as my parents did nothing. I was told that my dad had confronted him. But it didn't feel like they did enough, because the damage was bad."Sima (name changed)
Experts say that repressed memories are never really forgotten. They stay hidden from our conscious awareness, but intrude upon our daily life in fragments, dreams, triggers, and flashbacks.
"Often the memories do not come back as verbal narratives but as symptoms such as dissociative episodes. Once a person gains access to these memories, they relive the event as though it is happening in real time," says Lameeya Parween. She adds that traumatic memories becomes encoded in our minds very differently from the other memories.
They intrude spontaneously into consciousness, with dreams and flashbacks. Small, seemingly insignificant triggers can evoke these memories. When they return, they often bring with them the full force of the original event.
Why Repressed Memories Matter?
"Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary coping skills of life. They generally involve serious threats to life or our autonomy and sense of self. They invoke feelings of intense fear, helplessness, and loss of control," says Lameeya Parween.
"They may not allow the space for resistance or escape and, as such, our entire system of self defence becomes overwhelmed. The traumatic mind then sometimes saves itself by disconnecting from the memories."Syeda Lameeya Parween, Counseling Psychologist
When I talk to my therapist about anyone I'm close to – whether it's a friend, a partner, or family – I unintentionally end the sentence with "till whatever time this person sticks around."
The idea of someone actually staying for real isn't something I can comprehend easily.
"The mind ensures that the debilitating effects of a traumatic memory are kept hidden. But there are limits to the constraints of memory. Even if the person is unable to recall the traumatic events clearly, fragments from it will intrude upon daily functioning, for example, in the form of flashbacks and dissociative episodes."Syeda Lameeya Parween, Counseling Psychologist
How Does a Memory Getting Repressed Protect Us?
Lameeya Parween explains that traumatic events threaten to overwhelm our entire line of defence. When there is no chance of resistance, our minds, unable to change the outside context, alters our consciousness of it.
For example, a child who has been through trauma may forget the experience from conscious memory. The brain does so, so that the event can be explained, minimised, or excused, to make the child feel that whatever did happen was not really abuse. This saves the child’s primary attachment with the parents because the child is fully dependent on them for survival.
"However, this very adaptive response which may have ensured the person’s survival may become maladaptive when the danger has actually passed and the ways of coping haven’t changed. Because these survival skills keep the traumatic experiences away from our conscious memories, they prevents us from integrating that event into our narrative of life," says Lameeya Parween.
The impact of these survival tools is tenacious and lasts way longer than the traumatic event.
"All through this, the traumatic memories also find ways of intruding upon consciousness. The almost opposing ways in which trauma shows up for us may lead to what many called ‘psychic numbing’, ‘paralysis of the mind’, and what we now call and understand as ‘dissociation’."Syeda Lameeya Parween, Counseling Psychologist
How to Deal With Repressed Memory?
According to Lameeya Parween, "It can be extremely confusing and scary when someone uncovers or remembers traumatic memories. Reassure yourself that you’re having a difficult time because it’s a difficult process." Reach out to a trauma-informed therapist, if therapy is accessible for you so that you can have a gentle, brave space to explore these memories in a safe environment.
One needs to understand how trauma works and that the effects of a traumatic experience can be seen long after the actual threat has passed. Don’t rush yourself through it.
Offer yourself compassion through the process. Remind yourself that you are loved and cared for, and seek support and community with others.
"Helping a loved one who is navigating the complex waters of past traumatic memories coming back isn’t easy. Resist dismissing their narrative, because it feels too overwhelming to handle. Practice sitting with someone in discomfort rather than trying to cheer them up," says Lameeya Parween.
Learning to tolerate the distress of others is an important skill to learn and practice. Offer to spend time with them and direct them towards resources gently, once they have made that need known.
"Complex trauma and doing deep trauma work is often the realm of therapeutic space and needs a lot of time, so do not feel disheartened if you have not been able to help your loved ones the way you would've liked to."Syeda Lameeya Parween, Counseling Psychologist