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Repressed Sexual Abuse Signs

Apr 09, 2024
Last updated May 13, 2024
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Many of us have experienced deeply distressing events in our lifetimes that our conscious memory has not been able to store properly. Typically, this happens when our mind pushes away such memories or blocks them in some way. Trauma often forces people to repress or store negative memories so deep in one’s consciousness that they can be blocked for years before resurfacing. Sexual abuse is one such horrific event that often leaves behind invisible wounds and scars that manifest in different ways. 

Sometimes hard to diagnose or detect, repressed sexual abuse signs include missing time or lost memories, feeling flooded or triggered, black-and-white thinking, false memories, substance use and addictions, insecure attachment style, mood swings, and chronic stress. At Edwards Henderson, we are advocates for trauma survivors and help clients find ways to deal with their past and make the perpetrators accountable for their actions. 

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual abuse has short-term and long-term consequences, often forcing people to repress or store negative memories as a coping mechanism.
  • Trauma may shape a person’s memories and inform the way they feel about certain repressed events, people, or places.
  • A sex abuse lawyer can help survivors hold their abusers accountable so they are able to move forward from their traumatic past.

What Are Examples of Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse refers to any nonconsensual sexual activity, whether physical or otherwise. Examples of sexual abuse are unwanted fondling or kissing, rape or attempted rape, cyberbullying someone to remove their clothes for sexual gratification, or pressuring another person into performing a sexual act, like oral rape. 

Traumatic experiences like sexual abuse take such a heavy toll, they can often shape a person’s memories. Many child sexual abuse survivors often forget their early experiences due to traumatic amnesia; however, the subconscious brain often remembers. 

Different Types of Memories

A person with a history of trauma might feel like they have a “spotty” memory. This can happen because the stress caused due to ongoing trauma reshapes their brain and memories. For example, sex abuse survivors may forget certain details, experience distorted or fragmented memories, and struggle with learning new things. It is not uncommon for individuals to repress memories for years and years, only for them to resurface later on. 

There are three primary types of memories: 

  • Episodic memory involves a survivor’s ability to learn, store, and retrieve information about unique personal experiences. These memories typically include information about the time and place of an event. 
  • Implicit memory is emotional and physiological responses triggered by a traumatic event. For example, a person might negatively react to the touch of another person as it reminds them of their abuse.
  • Procedural memory is based on the prior experiences of a survivor who now has no record of those episodic memories. A child, for instance, may know how to perform a sexual act as they remember having performed it in the past. 

What Are Repressed Memories? 

Repressed memories are memories thought to be unconsciously blocked or suppressed due to the emotional intensity or trauma associated with them. It occurs when certain memories related to painful experiences get stored in the subconscious mind and become inaccessible, often as a defense mechanism to protect us from psychological harm. 

Once a memory is trapped, the person loses their ability to remember the traumatic experience that triggered the memory loss. However, the act of repressing memories can have a profound impact on the mental and physical well-being of the person, causing psychological distress, anxiety, emotional instability, insomnia, muscle tension, fatigue, weakened immune system, and more. 

While there continues to be a debate about whether the concept of repressed memories truly exists, many mental health experts offer repressed memory therapy to help trauma survivors alleviate commonly known symptoms. 

Why Do Child Sex Abuse Survivors Repress Memories of Sexual Abuse?

Trauma survivors do not repress memories by choice but out of necessity. Repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse happen due to psychological mechanisms aimed at coping with and protecting oneself from the trauma experienced due to the abuse. 

Survival instincts are another possible reason for repressed memories. For children, remembering or acknowledging the abuse can threaten their sense of safety and security, so repressed memories help them avoid emotional pain, self-blame, and a host of other emotions. 

Dissociative amnesia is another common defensive mechanism that blocks out painful memories of sexual abuse. Also known as ‘trauma memory’, it is an involuntary response triggered by trauma and may be fragmented, intense, or involve vivid sensory impressions and bodily sensations. 

What Factors Contribute to Repressed Memories of Sexual Abuse in Childhood? 

Repressed memories of sexual abuse in childhood are a complex phenomenon that cannot always be explained by psychology. Here are some of the factors that may contribute to repressed childhood sexual abuse memories: 

  • Age of the child at the time of the abuse, as young children may have limited cognitive and verbal abilities to process and express traumatic experiences.
  • Temperament of the child: What many caregivers fail to understand is that not all children cope with trauma the same way, and the abuse may lead them to act out in negative ways.
  • The severity of childhood sexual abuse and the level of trauma: While any nonconsensual sexual act can leave a lasting impact, if the sexual abuse involves violence or other intrusive means of inflicting pain, it can deepen the wound. 
  • Frequency of child sexual abuse, and whether there are repeated attempts and re-victimization. 
  • Other stressors such as learning disorders, neglectful parents, or disability like physical immobility or neurodivergence
  • Presence (or lack thereof) of a support system within or outside the home, such as parents, stepparents, grandparents, and siblings. 

Signs of Repressed Sexual Abuse

Not all survivors of sexual abuse repress their memories. Among other things, the nature and severity of the abuse can play a role in how memories are influenced. 

Signs of repressed sexual abuse include:

  • The inability to access certain memories can cause a person to lose significant memories surrounding personal information.
  • The inability to concentrate or mind fog can hurt a person’s ability to focus. 
  • Inability to express one’s needs, over-apologizing, or failing to recognize toxic patterns, like feeling your needs are unimportant and you do not deserve love. 
  • Feeling triggered by certain situations, places, or people, such as feeling physically sick at the thought of visiting an extended family member or a daycare center
  • Dissociative episodes, inexplicable panic attacks, or feeling overwhelmed when reminded of sexual abuse trauma.
  • Difficulty regulating emotions, trust issues, and other psychological conditions like mood swings, erratic behavior, low self-esteem, or constant feelings of inadequacy and general mistrust. 
  • Dealing with chronic anxiety and distress
  • False memories or fabricated and distorted recollections of an event. 
  • Substance abuseaddiction, and other unhealthy coping mechanisms, like eating disorders
  • Unstable relationships and re-victimization

Repressed Sexual Abuse Signs: FAQs

1. Is it possible to forget childhood trauma? 

There is a connection between childhood trauma and dissociative amnesia. While most scientists agree that kids under the age of two or three are unlikely to remember sexual abuse, studies show adults abused as children can forget the painful memories for a certain period of time. However, certain associations like sights, sounds, smells, and touch connected with the trauma may trigger a memory of the abuse

2. How does an abusive childhood affect adulthood? 

If left untreated, children who experience abuse suffer from long-term conditions like mental health issues, physical problems, self-destructive behaviors, interpersonal difficulties, and low self-esteem.

3. What is repressed childhood trauma? 

Childhood trauma creates a variety of emotional problems in adulthood. The brain may choose to repress details of the memories or emotions associated with them as a coping mechanism.

4. Is repressed trauma real? 

It is difficult to prove that repressed memories exist as they cannot easily be accessed or aligned with the original event. While recovered memories of repressed trauma may be real, sometimes they can be distorted. This is because memory is not perfect, and sometimes we fill in gaps in the memory with made-up stories or memories from different times. 

5. Does prolonged child sexual abuse cause C-PTSD? 

C-PTSD is a chronic symptom that occurs due to repeated trauma, such as prolonged abuse, neglect, violence, or torture. Examples of C-PTSD include anxiety, flashbacks, heightened emotions, and more. Therapists treat C-PTSD with psychotherapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, cognitive processing therapy, and/or medication. 

6. Why does childhood trauma resurface in adulthood? 

Certain events and triggers can force childhood trauma to resurface in adulthood. This happens because the trauma never really goes away when suppressed; therefore, it resurfaces when the older coping mechanisms no longer work. 

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse use coping mechanisms to block out memories, which can include alcohol or drug abuse. However, the best way to understand whether your child’s addiction is related to sexual abuse is to speak to a mental health expert. 

8. I discovered I was sexually abused decades ago. Can I sue my abuser? 

It is well-recognized that memories of sexual abuse can resurface years later. This is why many states allow survivors to hold their abusers accountable through a sex abuse lawsuit years after the abuse. 

How Can a Sexual Abuse Lawyer Help Me?

sexual abuse lawyer understands the nature and complexity of sexual assault and abuse cases. Having worked with many survivors in a variety of cases, they understand the ways in which people deal with trauma and how it can impact their lives. A compassionate and experienced lawyer can help you explore legal options, including filing a civil sexual abuse lawsuit against the person who abused you. While a survivor may never move on from a traumatic experience, they can always move forward with their lives. 

We’re Here to Listen: Talk to a Sexual Abuse Lawyer Today

Dealing with sexual abuse cases can be emotionally challenging and taxing as there are intricate legal procedures and statutes. A skilled sex abuse lawyer can serve as your advocate and represent your interests throughout the legal process. At Edwards Henderson, our team has helped many survivors of sexual abuse, including Epstein’s survivors, seek justice and financial compensation to access mental health resources. 

We are here to listen to your story. Contact us today for a free consultation and speak with one of our experienced sex abuse lawyers. 

Article Sources

  1. 'Some days I think I was molested, others I'm not sure': inside a case of repressed memory
  2. The Debate on Repressed Memories
  3. What’s the Deal with Repressed Memories?
  4. Dissociative Amnesia: Symptoms, Causes, & Treatments
  5. Recovered Memories of Childhood Trauma
  6. CPTSD (Complex PTSD)

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