Using Hypnosis for Repressed Childhood Abuse Memories

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Many people who have emotional difficulties in adulthood, including addiction, wonder whether the cause was abuse in their childhood that they have forgotten or repressed. In particular, many wonder about the possibility of sexual abuse having occurred, but been blocked out. They may have memories that are incomplete but feel uncomfortable, particularly when recalled with an adult perspective.

If you are a victim of child abuse or know someone who might be, call or text the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 to speak with a professional crisis counselor.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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 about what may or may not have happened to them, and asking themselves the question, "Was I sexually abused?" 

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. Both dissociation and intrusive memories are features of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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.

At times, people who spontaneously recover memories of abuse are able to verify what happened to them, which can lead to a sense of relief and self-understanding. At other times, the memories are not clear and are difficult to interpret. Seeking verifying evidence can also be impossible, fruitless, or can result in further difficulties with other family members.

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.

Regression Therapy and Hypnosis

Regression therapy, which focuses on resolving significant events interfering with your mental or emotional health, is often conducted by using hypnosis. Proponents believe that this relaxed state allows patients to tap into any forgotten or repressed traumatic events that are impacting their current mental state or behavior.

There are two types of regression therapy:

  • Age regression therapy, which aims to uncover things that have happened during childhood
  • Past life regression therapy, which aims to resolve issues from your past lives

Regression therapy is controversial, however, since there's currently not enough evidence to determine whether or not it’s possible to repress and later recover traumatic memories.

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 PTSD.

Hypnotherapy is particularly useful in helping survivors 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.

A Word From Verywell

If you or a loved one is considering hypnosis or regression therapy, it’s essential to seek out a skilled mental health professional. Not only do you want to ensure that no one “plants” false memories but you’ll want to make sure digging up any painful memories is done safely and with care.

Although there are several professional organizations for hypnotherapy, including the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and the American Association of Professional Hypnotherapists, there is no certification or regulation for hypnotherapists. If possible, it's best to seek a hypnotherapist who is also a health care professional governed by the regulations of their profession.

Hypnotherapy may not be suitable for everyone. People's ability to use hypnosis may vary, and individuals with certain mental health conditions like dissociative disorders, active substance abuse, and psychotic disorders may not do well with hypnosis.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.