Ask Dr. J. Archives

Dear Dr. J

What are frozen memories?


Dear Bobbie

I think what you are talking about are repressed memories.

When a person suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, they often forget what happened to them. They forget the memories of the trauma, especially when the trauma occurs in childhood. When something bad or traumatic happens to a child, the child has very little power and very few ways to cope with trauma. One of the coping mechanisms that is used by children is to repress (or forget) what happened to them.

Repressed memory can also occur in adults. This would include people who have suffered some type of trauma or shock. Victims of violence, for example, may not remember that happened to them. This would include rape victims, victims of physical attack, people who have survived floods, fires, and other natural disasters, and people who have been through an event which would be traumatic for most people like plane or automobile crashes or other unforeseeable disasters.

Despite the fact that survivors of trauma have repressed visual memories, they can still feel the effects of the trauma in other ways. See the website page regarding PTSD for more details on that. When a PTSD survivor seeks treatment, they may not remember what happened to them, but their life is not working and they don’t know why. In therapy, they sometimes remember that a trauma has happened and may begin to have “breakthrough memories” where they will experience “snippets” of memory. In some cases, over time, these pictures fill out, and they get a clearer picture of what happened. Once the survivor can remember and understand what happened, it is easier for them to begin to heal.

Of all the senses, the sense of smell often triggers repressed memories. Certain smells may create a sense of dread, repulsion, or physical sensation and we don’t exactly know why. Visual pictures escape us, but our sense of smell tells us something isn’t right. Repressed memories often come back in “flashes” and are experienced much like a slide show of still images. Sometimes, the details of the memory will fill in, but sometimes they do not. The human psyche is extremely versatile in protecting us from pain. If something is too painful to endure, the mind will block it out. This is what happens when we have these “frozen memories”.

Dr. J

Advice-Memories-and-PTSD. More information on PTSD

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