Repression is when someone unconsciously ignores or avoids certain emotions. Psychoanalysts believe that repressed emotions can have an impact on thoughts, behavior, and health.

The concept of repression comes from psychoanalyst Anna Freud, who defined it as a type of defense mechanism that protects the ego from stress.

In psychoanalysis, repression is something that happens unintentionally, without a person being aware of it. Repressed emotions may manifest in another form. For example, a person who feels grief may instead express anger.

Read on to learn more about repressed emotions, including whether it is healthy, signs a person may have repressed emotions, and how to release them.

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Repressed emotions are feelings a person has unconsciously avoided, ignored, or blocked. A person may have no idea they hold these feelings.

For example, a person may not remember how they felt during a traumatic experience or may not feel angry when recalling something unfair that happened to them.

In psychoanalysis, which is a specific type of talk therapy, repression is an unconscious defense mechanism. This means it is something that the mind does without a person being aware of it in order to protect them from unpleasant or undesirable feelings.

People sometimes use “repressed emotions” and “suppressed emotions” interchangeably. But in psychoanalysis, these terms have different meanings.

According to Freud, repression is an entirely subconscious process. A person represses their emotions without thinking about it or realizing they are doing it.

Suppression, by contrast, is a conscious process. A person is aware that they are avoiding and ignoring their emotions.

For example, a person might ignore their feelings of grief when at work or among friends but then feel their grief when they are at home.

Freud believed that defense mechanisms, such as repression, are a self-protective strategy. A person might repress emotions when they seem too painful to manage, when they have inadequate support to deal with them, or when those emotions are socially unacceptable.

In this regard, repression may initially protect a person, especially in childhood. However, many psychoanalysts believe repression is not a beneficial long-term strategy for coping with negative experiences.

Freud theorized that the inability to outwardly express an emotion would cause it to become an inwardly harmful emotion instead. She argued that it may cause a person to express unhelpful emotions or behaviors as part of their ongoing efforts to repress the emotion.

More recently, theorists have proposed that repressing negative emotions may limit a person’s ability to express and feel positive emotions.

However, while repression is a common concept in psychoanalysis, there is very little scientific research on its effects. In part, this is because repression is a difficult phenomenon to study.

There is some research on suppression, though. For example, a 2020 systematic review of previous research assessed the connection between defense mechanisms and psychological distress among cancer survivors.

The studies showed a correlation between emotional suppression and increased distress, but the authors note that there were significant inconsistencies and potential for bias in the research they examined.

There is no definitive list of symptoms that a person can use to determine if they could be repressing emotions. Below are some signs that psychoanalysts look for, but it is worth bearing in mind these do not guarantee a person is repressing feelings. They can have other explanations.

Disproportionate emotions

People who repress emotions may have feelings that do not match the impact of a situation. The emotions may be mild or completely absent. They could also be confusing. For example, a person might feel angry or nervous for reasons they do not understand.

Other defense mechanisms

People who are repressing emotions may also use other tools to protect themselves from difficult feelings, either unconsciously or consciously. For example, they might engage in:

  • avoidance, which means they try to avoid places, people, or situations that remind them of their distress
  • humor, to make light of a difficult situation or minimize its importance
  • displacement, or taking feelings out on others
  • denial

Unhelpful coping strategies

People can use many kinds of coping strategies to manage their feelings. In the context of repression, people may use things that distract or numb themselves, such as:

  • TV, films, or escapism
  • avoiding being alone
  • alcohol or drugs

People repress emotions that are undesirable. They may be undesirable for many reasons, such as:

  • Shame: When a person’s family, community, or culture views certain emotions as shameful or unacceptable, a person may repress them to avoid rejection or judgment.
  • Emotional intensity: Sometimes, people feel they are not equipped to experience painful emotions because they seem overwhelming. This may result in repression.
  • Lack of awareness: If a person did not grow up in an environment that encouraged people to think about or express their emotions, they may never have learned how.

Trauma is the impact of traumatic or extremely distressing events. Repression can be a response to trauma, but it is not always. For example, avoidance is part of the symptom criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, while repression is not.

Similarly, a lack of emotion around a traumatic event is not always the product of repression. People may experience this due to having repressed memories rather than only repressed feelings. Another explanation is dissociation.

These concepts have some overlap, but there are distinctions between them:

  • Dissociation: This is when a person feels disconnected from themselves or their reality during intense stress. As a result of this, a person may not remember how a traumatic event felt. People can also experience dissociative amnesia, which can cause the partial or total loss of a memory. It is not possible to retrieve the memory later on.
  • Repressed memory: This is when a person has access to a memory, but the mind does not allow them to remember. Under the right conditions, such as under hypnosis or when they feel safe enough to cope, they may retrieve the memory.

In psychoanalytic theory, psychoanalysis is the main tool for releasing repressed emotions. Other forms of talk therapy may help, as many encourage people to be mindful of how they feel and process those feelings in a healthy way.

There are many types of therapy, so it may take some trial and error to find an approach, and a therapist, that a person finds helpful. It is important to note that the goal of therapy is not to force a person to feel something or remember an event before they are ready. This can take time, depending on the person.

Exercise may also help a person release repressed emotions. Some people also report feeling an emotional release when they practice body-based therapies, but research on this approach is still ongoing.

Repression is a defense mechanism that causes a person to not acknowledge or consciously feel emotions. Psychoanalysts believe that repressed emotions can affect behavior and mental health.

A person feeling few or no emotions about an event that would typically cause distress may be experiencing repression. When this is deliberate, it is known as suppression.

However, a lack of emotion about an event can also come from dissociation. If a person has any concerns they have repressed emotions or memories, or they have any other mental health symptoms, they should speak with a therapist.