A repressed memory is one that has been blocked out of a person's conscious mind. The memory is not entirely forgotten, and may come back many years or even decades after an event took place. Most instances of repressed memories involve especially traumatic, stressful, or frightful events, such as childhood abuse, a car accident, or a war battle. Cognitive psychologists and other researchers have long debated the existence and significance of repressed memories, since cases are usually difficult to study and clinically diagnose. The concept of repressed memory disorder is often correlated with dissociative amnesia, a condition that has been better studied and understood.
According to many psychologists, a person may repress a memory if an event was so traumatic that he or she was simply unable to process and cope with the situation at the time. In some cases, people report they cannot recall long periods of time from their childhood; there may even be years without any significant memories. It is common for such people to have suffered significant abuse or neglect during those years. An individual usually struggles to come to terms with his or her past when a repressed memory eventually does resurface. He or she and may experience new distress, confusion, and relationship issues.
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Dissociative amnesia is a clinically diagnosable mental disorder that involves repressed memories of stressful or traumatic events. It is common for people with dissociative amnesia to also struggle with bouts of depression or anxiety for reasons unclear to them, but likely stem from past trauma. Psychiatrists usually make diagnoses after thorough physical and mental evaluations have been completed and other causes of memory lapse, such as drug abuse or insomnia, have been ruled out. An individual who has dissociative amnesia usually receives psychological counseling to help him or her overcome stresses and behavioral problems, discuss past events in a safe environment, and learn how to better cope with future situations.
A repressed memory is most often recovered spontaneously at some point in adulthood. Some people recall information after visiting a forgotten site or childhood, recognizing a sound or smell, or hearing a vaguely familiar name. Memories can sometimes be recovered through intensive psychotherapy or hypnotherapy, wherein trained psychologists help people remember events through suggestive questioning. Many professionals, however, dispute both the efficacy and ethics of asking pointed questions to recover memories. Some psychologists believe that repressed memory therapy techniques can produce false memories if the person asking the questions is too leading or manipulative.