Can Hypnosis Unlock Memories of Childhood Abuse?

Is This How to Unlock Repressed Memories?

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Hypnosis can sometimes unlock repressed memories. Colin Anderson / Getty Images

Many people who have emotional difficulties, including addictions, in adulthood wonder whether the cause was abuse in their childhood that they have forgotten or repressed. 

Read The Cycle of Sexual Abuse

Not being able to clearly remember, particularly when there are hints that something may have happened, can be frustrating, and people can become quite distracted with speculating what may or may not have happened to them.

  Hypnosis can seem like a way to unlock these memories, and settle the matter once and for all.

Unfortunately, the reality is not that simple. 

Memory and Dissociation

It is true that some people who were abused as children forget or dissociate from the experience, and don't recall the abuse in adulthood.  This is thought to be a protective process -- by forgetting the traumatic event, it is shut out of consciousness, allowing the child, and later the adult, to cope with current problems without being overwhelmed with unpleasant memories. For others, troubling memories may occur on an ongoing basis, and both disassociation and intrusive memories are features of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Read Was I Sexually Abused?

Spontaneous Recall of Abuse

It is also true that some people later recall memories of abuse.  This recall can occur in the context of some kind of therapy or change in physical or emotional state, including hypnosis.

  However, recall of abuse can happen without any particular therapeutic intervention.

Memory and Hypnosis

Hypnosis is an altered state of consciousness in which memories can sometimes be more easily accessed.  However, it is also a state in which the mind is open to fantasy and imagination.  It is virtually impossible to tell whether recall of an incident of childhood abuse is a memory of a real event, or a fantasy.

  

Many people, both clients and therapists, believe that memory works like a video camera, recording everything that happens to us.  They may also believe that forgotten or repressed memories can be unlocked by a technique such as hypnosis.  In fact, many hypnotherapists go further, and believe that people can recall past lives under hypnosis.

These beliefs are not supported by scientific fact.  The nature of memory as a process of reconstruction is now well established.  The mind is not like a video camera, it is more like a scrapbook, whereby memories are created by combining pieces of sensory experience with interpretation and fantasy. 

Under hypnosis, people are particularly open to suggestion.  In fact, this is the basis of how hypnosis works.  A hypnotherapist who believes in the video recorder model of memory, particularly if they suspect their client has been abused, may inadvertently suggest memories of abuse to someone under hypnosis, that can seem like real memories to the client.

This is not to say that anyone who recalls childhood abuse in adulthood is imagining it, whether or not the recall occurs under hypnosis.  Neither is it to say that hypnotherapists deliberately feed their clients false memories of abuse.  What it does say is that hypnosis is not a reliable method of determining whether or not you were abused in childhood if you do not remember now.

How Hypnosis Can Help Survivors of Childhood Abuse

Despite the unsuitability of hypnosis for personal "detective work," hypnotherapy is very effective in helping people who were sexually abused to overcome their symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. Hypnotherapy is particularly useful in helping survivors to restructure their actual memories of abuse to give them a greater sense of control, and in addressing painful feelings such as self blame.  Hypnosis is most powerful when focused on creating positive changes to thoughts, feelings and behaviors for the future.

Read Breaking the Cycle of Sexual Abuse

Sources

Spiegel, D. Hypnosis in the treatment of victims of sexual abuse. Psyciatr Clin North Am 12(2):295-305. 1989.

Yapko, M. Suggestions of Abuse: True and False Memories of Childhood Sexual Trauma. Simon & Schuster. 2009.

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