What Happens When Repressed Memories of Trauma Begin to Resurface
The impact of recovering memories that have been repressed for years can be a debilitating process in your trauma healing. They have been repressed for a reason; that reason being that when a person goes through significant trauma, the brain shuts down, dissociation takes over and as a survival technique, the trauma(s) get unconsciously blocked and tucked away from you and stored into disorganized files in your brain due to a high level of stress, or you were in a situation where you felt threatened and it was a matter of life or death – so your mind did what it had to in order to keep you safe, and therefore you could go on and have the ability to live your life and function in society.
Repressed memories can come back to you in various ways, including having a trigger, nightmares, flashbacks, body memories and somatic/conversion symptoms. This can lead to feelings of denial, shame, guilt, anger, hurt, sadness, numbness and so forth.
Having new memories come up can affect your current state of reality, your relationships, your perception of the world and of those around you, which can take you back to the past and keep you stuck there, making you feel as though you are re-living the trauma all over again. It can destabilize you and your life, and may be followed by dissociation, depersonalization/derealization and dissociative amnesia. It can make you see “safe” people as “unsafe,” and while you’re stuck in those memories, nothing and no one may feel safe – not even yourself. This can then lead to isolation, avoidance, low self-care and a war within your mind and your body.
Your body can react in ways that it did back then which can be both new for you, and extremely frightening. You may find yourself going into the fight, flight, freeze, flop or fawn responses at what you think are minuscule things. Your memories may come through in re-enactment behaviors. You may find yourself repeating behaviors that relate to your traumas. However your memories come back to you is valid. However you and your body respond to your memories coming up are valid. Your feelings towards your memories are valid – and all of this is OK. You are OK, and you are safe now.
When repressed memories come up, it is important to try and understand the biology behind it – why they’re coming up at this point in time, how you can work with them, learn to trust yourself and what your mind and body are trying to tell you, and how you can manage your safety and wellbeing as you’re working through them. Try to acknowledge what is happening for you and validate your past experiences, learn and identify your triggers, and allow yourself to sit with the feelings that are coming up. Ground yourself in your current reality,“It is 2019, I am in xx years old, I live with __ now, I am safe.” Differentiate between your reality and your memories and work on staying present and grounded, and give yourself permission to be kind to yourself during this process. Communicate your experiences with a trusted therapist. Allow space for vulnerability. Be gentle and compassionate towards yourself.
Trauma recovery isn’t linear – you might have all of your memories of your trauma, and you might have none. You might not have memories, but it may still be affecting you subconsciously. You might have scattered jigsaw pieces of different traumas and not the full puzzle, and that’s OK too. Your repressed memories come to you when you are finally ready to deal with them. They are not there to hurt you or ruin the life you have created for yourself – they are there to tell you what happened to you, to help you make sense of why things are the way that they are, that it’s time to work with them and that you are safe enough to do so.
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