Memories: Why We Repress Them & How to Recover Them
Part two of a series by Bobbi Parish-Logie
Welcome back everyone to part two of my short series about memories from the perspective of neuroscience and mental health. Last week I talked about how our brain stores memories and why it represses them. This week let’s dive into how to recognize that we have repressed memories and how to recover them.
Our brain has varying degrees of repressing memories. Some are determined so dangerous to our emotional health that they are locked into compartments so tightly and so far away from anything that would trigger their recall that those memories aren’t ever intended to be recovered. Other memories that the mind has determined to be dangerous to our well-being in the moment but potentially safe to recall at a later date, will be locked away with a thread of their substance dangling from the box. At some point in the future, when the brain determines it is safe, it will allow that thread to be connected to a circumstance or experience that will pull that repressed memory from its box.
Recovering Repressed Memories
How do you determine if you have repressed memories? Sometimes, we already know. Through looking at old family photos, talking to friends, or just recalling our own life’s story line we have recognized that we have a gap or two. It’s not uncommon for a client to come into my office reporting that they know they’re missing memories from their childhood because their siblings have talked about events they themselves cannot recall.
But sometimes we might have only a vague suspicion that we are missing a memory because something, somehow just doesn’t add up when we think about the chronology of our past. How do we take a memory accounting and see if we are, indeed, missing a chunk of time, or two or even more. Creating a timeline of our lives is the best tool I’ve found to do that.
Get out a tablet of paper and turn it horizontally. Start with your birth and move forward, sketching out a chronologically ordered story of your life marked by significant moments such as births, deaths, marriages, divorces, graduations, job beginnings and endings, moves, traumatic events, serious illnesses, and any other events that stand out as major.
I once did this with a family that had suffered significant trauma and abuse. It took us five sessions and enough poster paper to cover all four walls of my office, but in comparing their three different recollections of their childhood we discovered each had multiple memory gaps.
When you’re looking for repressed memories focus in particular on events that were traumatic: deaths, divorces, injuries, wars and times when other family members experienced significant distress. For example: when your parents divorced during your childhood, when Uncle Thomas disappeared for two years and your mother was consistently distressed about it, when your sister was hospitalized multiple times in her childhood with various illnesses, when your brother was killed in a war (declared or undeclared).
Once you identify times when you’re obviously unable to fill in some blanks, or when you have even an inkling that you’re missing something, then the hunting to recover possibly repressed memories begins. Talking to people who also experienced those events is a great place to start. Ask what they remember about that timeframe. Remember, though, that others may have skewed or missing memories of their own. So always try to seek information from multiple sources to validate what you discover.
Seeking out family photos or home movies from those periods of time is also an excellent resource. Look for yearbooks and newspapers. Can you go back and visit the locations where these moments in your life took place? The wonderful things about these types of resources is that they are often factually based so there is little need to validate.
Something you do will pull on that thread dangling from the box that your mind has stored the memory which was once a threat. Once you start pulling on that thread the box will eventually release its contents. It may not happen right away, but when your mind is certain that opening the box is safe, the memory will return to your conscious recollection.
Recovering repressed memories can be hard work. And it definitely takes patience. Sometimes it can also be distressing as you are confronted by difficult circumstances you endured but didn’t remember. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help to process those memories, either in the form of a therapist, clergy person or other trusted advisor. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you recall traumatic memories, let them integrate back into your timeline in their own pace and process.
Our brain’s process of storing memories is a complex and sometimes tricky process. Recalling or recovering repressed memories is often just as complicated and complex, but this time in reverse. Remember though that the recall process is always under your control, you can stop and start again, if at all, any time you want. The quality of our memories does not determine the quality of our lives. We all have richness and depth just as we are, always.
Bobbi Parish-Logie is a Marriage and Family Therapist who works primarily with trauma survivors. As a survivor of childhood abuse she is uniquely equipped to help other trauma survivors recover and heal. Bobbi hosts a Twitter Chat for survivors of sexual abuse on Tuesday evenings. She blogs about mental health issues at Resplendent by Design. ( A published author, Bobbi has one book on the market and two more coming out this year.)