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Releasing repressed memories

Painful memories experienced in childhood can create physical and emotional problems later in life that seem intractable. When a child is bullied, abandoned, demeaned or experiences a strong negative rejection that threatens his sense of feeling safe in the world, the mind protects the victim by hiding the memory from the conscious mind. A trauma in childhood happens when the child doesn’t have the emotional resiliency to know how to deal with it. When that child becomes an adult, and begins to experience inexplicable anxiety, panic and painful or frightening physical symptoms, it is sometimes difficult for physicians to diagnose it. Most people call on doctors, psychotherapists and alternative health therapists, in that order. Visiting the hypnotherapist usually happens last.

Painful repressed memories can trigger powerful physical symptoms

This is what happened to a client I’ll call Tom F. but it certainly wasn’t the first time I had seen it in my practice. He suffered from powerful palpitations several times a day which frightened him and sent him to the cardiologist a few times a week. The cardiologist consistently found no sign of organic malfunction and at a loss to help him, suggested that he might be suffering from an unconscious reaction. He referred Tom to me.

Why your mind prevents you from accessing traumatic memories

Like many such clients, Tom was ready to try anything that would free him from this frightening problem. He wanted to know and understand if anything had happened to him as a child that could result in the physical symptoms he was experiencing now in adulthood. Repressing memories is the mind’s way of protecting you from information that is damaging to your sense of self. It’s a survival mechanism.

Regression can only happen when a person feels safe and protected

Hypnotic regression happens when a therapist suggests that the client can  explore their past memories and allow this causative memory to become conscious, so it can be released.  The first step was to help him reach a state of hypnotic trance where he could feel a sense of personal safety and detachment as he focused on the anxiety that he experiences when his heart is palpitating. I encouraged him to pay attention to the memories that came to the surface of his mind in relation to his anxiety and palpitations.

Was that repressed memory a real one or was it imagined?

The memory and its details returned vividly and allowed him to understand at a deep level what had happened to him. In childhood traumas, the child is generally the victim. In Tom’s case, his 11-year-old brother was babysitting him for his parents. For whatever reason, he had locked Tom up in a cupboard for hours. Tom remembered screaming the whole time. His brother threatened him as well, reinforcing Tom’s feeling of powerlessness. “If you tell  daddy, I’m really going to hurt you!”. As he became conscious of this memory, it returned with a burst of the 5 year old’s pent-up emotion.  He remembered the details, the time of day, where the cupboard was in the house and what caused his brother to do this. Did he remember the exact way the event happened? One can never tell if the way the 5-year-old remembered it was the actual way it happened. We do know that every time we remember a memory, we experience it from our own perception. We also remember it a little differently than the way it happened. What we do remember is how we experienced it emotionally.

Why did Tom unconsciously repress this memory?

We can assume that the unconscious mind uses repression as a self-protective mechanism in traumatic situations. When Tom was stuffed in the cupboard, he had no way of coping with this perceived danger. His parents were not there to protect him and he was powerless to help himself. His mind simply swept the memory under the carpet where it couldn’t be seen and Tom could restore his sense of security, although that sense of security was never fully restored.

Can the impact of a trauma be reversed if we re-experience it in a more empowering way?

It is often an emotional and powerful experience to have such a memory come back so clearly. The most important step in the process is then allowing Tom’s ‘child’ to re-imagine and re-experience the whole event again, in the safe supportive environment of a hypnotic trance. Here, the inner child can imagine gaining strength and power from his adult knowledge and experience. In hypnosis, we can never change the fact of the memory, but we can change the way we feel about it. Tom imagined that his parents arrived in just a few minutes later and that his brother was badly punished. In that state of hypnosis, he imagined expressing, in real time,  his anger directly towards his brother, letting him know that it’ll be even worse if he tries that stunt again. The client is then encouraged to imagine a loving parent, or their “ideal” parent or even their own adult self, helping their inner child to accept it, to deal with it from this new perspective and to finally let it go. In cases where it’s appropriate, the client can experience a sense of forgiveness towards their past tormentor. In this new empowered state of mind, Tom felt he could forgive his brother and he did.

Letting go can be life-changing

It’s no surprise that adult Tom still felt that overwhelming sense of helplessness when those heart palpitations kicked in. After releasing the toxic effect of that memory, those old feelings were replaced by a sense of calm. Tom the  adult had processed that old memory and let it go. The palpitations stopped and he never worried about them again. He recently told me that he’s a much stronger person now. He even used the word ‘fearless’. That is a feeling that can transform your life and free you to be yourself.

Ellen McNally is a certified clinical hypnotherapist. She is also specialized in Regression Therapy. If you would like to get in touch with Ellen to chat about how hypnotherapy can help, contact her at (852) 2523 7286 or, send her an email at ellen@hypnosisinhongkong.com

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