One of the most important psychological phenomena when treating certain types of disorders or traumas is the process known as the return of the repressed. It is a complex process that serves as an adaptive psychic defense mechanism , it has a direct influence on the formation of the personality.

It is one of the basic concepts that belong to psychoanalytic theory . Through the study of this subject it has been possible to carry out exhaustive analyzes from different perspectives of psychology. Formally, the first time this theory was raised was from the discovery made by Sigmund Freud, this happened in consequence of his studies and applied treatments in patients diagnosed with neurosis and hysteria.

Basically the return of the repressed works as a process of censorship or forgetting of contents made up of representations mainly expressed as ideas, thoughts, emotions and memories. These same have a very important personal meaning which significantly affects the patient causing discomfort. In order to maintain a balanced and healthy mental state, these contents are stored in the unconscious so that it is difficult to access them.

The return of the repressed becomes manifest when patients begin to experience mental lapses such as forgetting names or particular details. Other symptoms are daytime fantasies as well as trouble thinking coherently. The appearance of physical symptoms that have a psychic origin is even observed, these are associated with the content that has been repressed.

What is the return of the repressed?

The return of the repressed is the mental process characterized by the expulsion from consciousness of content that remains censored or blocked . That is to say, it is a mechanism that constantly tries to make memories, ideas or emotions resurface; that for some reason access to them had been prevented.

This is a term used in psychoanalysis to refer to this complex psychological process, the first time it was mentioned and described was by Sigmund Freud. The return of the repressed is characterized by the exposure of information but in a distorted way . This is called transactional formations, they are the result of the mediation between the psychic part that represses said content with the representations that have been repressed.

This happens in the unconscious and results in what has been repressed externalizing itself in various ways. For this reason, it is normal for people to begin to suffer from symptoms of physical changes, dreams, mental lapses as well as daytime dreamlike fantasies.

What are their characteristics? 

Everything that is repressed will be permanently trying to get out, this is a process that becomes permanent and active within the unconscious . The encapsulation of all this content that is expelled by the consciousness being pushed into the unconscious finally fails to be destroyed.

It is observed that in some patients the process of return of the repressed is experienced in a much more intense way. It could be affirmed that everything that is repressed for a greater amount of time will eventually cause greater effects on the mental and physical health of the patient. This is especially relevant in those cases where there is a history related to some type of trauma or post-traumatic stress.  

One of the consequences to which more attention must be paid is the somatization process . That is, in some cases the severity of this condition makes patients more likely to manifest physical symptoms that are directly related to what has been repressed. Emotional pain manifests itself through different types of symptoms, which, however, only the patient is able to perceive.

For most psychologists and psychiatrists the return of the repressed becomes a basic defense mechanism. The “I” of each person will unconsciously try to oppose those sensations and contents that bother him. This is a complex psychic system in which content of different kinds is suppressed and subtracted in order to calm the anxiety or discomfort they cause. These same contents will continue to significantly affect the state of mind and mental stability unless they are censored.

These contents are usually called by the term of representations , they can be images, sounds, sensations, ideas or desires that finally cannot be accepted. It is possible that for some reason they are considered painful or painful , in the last instance they do not correspond to the values ​​or demands with which the patient wishes to live. This is the case of morality which directly designates that it should be prohibited.

So it is not only about the repression of representations, it is also about the exclusion of a set of effects painfully experienced consciously. These events or memories will continue to generate the same discomfort and will always be linked to these representations that have been stored in memory.

How does the repression work?

The complexity of this process depends largely on how certain ideals or moralities influence people’s choices and aspirations. In other words, some personal and social demands may be the turning point for the eventual development of content that will remain repressed. This is the case of psychosexual development where some content associated with incestuous or aggressive desires will try to be hidden and denied.

The process by which the return of the repressed will take place acts in a way that separates the “I” from all those representations that do not conform to this identity. The purpose is to achieve adaptation with the environment and in the social environment. All desires that have been classified as morally prohibited, which could cause socially questioned behaviors, therefore it becomes a necessity to block them.

But we must also consider the existence of a type of secondary repression where all the representations stored in the unconscious, eventually may partially emerge towards consciousness. This occurs through failed or unpleasant dreams, memories, fantasies, and thoughts . Ultimately it will try to ignore these manifestations.

According to what was stated in his initial theory, Freud describes that the return of the repressed works from three levels. The first of them is characterized by the constant effort of the conscious so that the repressed content is not externalized. The second step describes a push boost in which it tries to suppress certain information through a selective forgetting process. 

Finally, the last stage consists of the association of repressed representations with other current affective contents that are also considered unpleasant. That is, these associations will have a clear relationship that cannot be ignored, it will also significantly affect the patient due to the fact that they experience physical symptoms as well as nightmares.

Relationship with repression in psychology 

At present, the return of the repressed is considered one of the core concepts of psychoanalysis . The clinical practice of this science depends to a large extent on the formal study of this process, not only is it still making theoretical contributions but it is also being experimented with through different types of studies. Understanding what happens in the unconscious continues to attract attention and curiosity because the human mind has not yet been fully understood.

The first time that this term was mentioned was in one of the publications on psychoanalysis of the year 1896 whose authorship belongs to Sigmund Freud . According to psychoanalytic theory it is possible to find various types of content housed in the unconscious, which are representations and drives. This means that it is not entirely effective to oppress or ignore certain psychological aspects.

Freud was the first to realize that some people are more likely to develop a self-preservation mechanism based on a mechanism where certain information was hidden or suppressed . This mechanism is manifested through neurotic symptoms which signal the return of the repressed.

In psychology it is important to understand how this process is carried out, there is still a dilemma regarding the relationship between oppression and repression . Basically the return of the repressed is a conflictive mechanism, since there is a struggle to return ideas and emotions through the same associative ways used by oppression.

Since Freud’s first contribution, studies have been continually being carried out on this topic. Special attention is paid to the symptoms which are adjusted to different forms of neurosis and mechanisms such as condensation, displacement and also conversion.

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Alexa Clark specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. She has experience in listening and welcoming in Individual Therapy and Couples Therapy. It meets demands such as generalized anxiety, professional, love and family conflicts, stress, depression, sexual dysfunction, grief, and adolescents from 15 years of age. Over the years, She felt the need to conduct the psychotherapy sessions with subtlety since She understands that the psychologist acts as a facilitator of self-understanding and self-acceptance, valuing each person's respect, uniqueness, and acceptance.

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