Repression is a key term in mental health. Repression mainly refers to a psychological defence mechanism that a person employs to keep certain thoughts, feelings, impulses or urges out of their conscious awareness. It may be viewed as a person pushing something to the back of their mind – though in truth it is more complex.

By repressing thoughts, a person is able to keep any damaging or intrusive thoughts out of their conscious mind – therefore minimizing their impact. However, these thoughts can still impact their behaviour without a person realising it – potentially causing bigger problems.

Repression is a key topic in psychology

Freud’s Iceberg Analogy

The concept of repression was first identified by renowned neurologist Sigmund Freud, and is a key concept in his overall theory of Psychoanalysis. Freud used an iceberg as an analogy to explain his theory of the mind.

Using the iceberg to describe the mind, if someone sees an iceberg – they can normally only see what is above the water. This is like the conscious mind – the part of a mind a person is aware of. But it isn’t possible to see the iceberg’s formation below the water. This can be applied to the mind, with the area that you can’t see, or aren’t aware of, being called the unconscious mind.

Freud’s theory of the mind

Repression as a defence mechanism

Freud suggested that emotional disturbances in life can be attributed to thoughts or feelings in the unconscious mind. Freud began to notice a pattern when treating patients, namely that Freud believed a mechanism existed that led to a person being unable to express certain thoughts or feelings.

This process was given the name of repression by Freud – and has gone on to have a major effect on the field of psychology. Repression is a term that many psychologists agree is important.

Therefore, repression isn’t simply pushing harmful thoughts to the back of the mind. Freud suggests that proper repression involves a person completely hiding something from their conscious awareness – to the extent that a person is oblivious to the fact it exists.

Yet, despite a person not being aware of the repressed thought/feeling, it will commonly continue to influence a person’s life in the modern day – perhaps through behaviours or actions.

Freud posited that this could explain some psychiatric disturbances – as the repressed thoughts and feelings eventually accumulate to the point where the person can no longer cope. This build up can slowly come to a person’s conscious mind in subtle ways.

Repression was the first human defence mechanism that Freud identified. Throughout his studies, he maintained that repression was the most important of the defence mechanisms employed by humans.

Given that Freud’s entire theory of psychoanalysis is based on the importance of unconscious thoughts and feelings (and their impact on the conscious mind) and the subsequent lessening of psychological distress – it makes repression crucial.


An example of repression could be a person who has repressed memories of being the victim of an attack by a dog at a young age. This attack was traumatising at the time, and caused injuries and distress to them.

However, they were young at the time, and so they largely forgot about the event. They may grow up to have a fear of dogs, causing them to be reluctant to leave the house out of fear of seeing a dog – even though they don’t know why they have this fear.

In this example, the person would likely develop mental health problems due to the intense fear of dogs – having Anxiety and probably Depression – given the inevitable mood consequences of staying in most of the time and not participating in day-to-day life.

This is when a form of therapy would be useful, as it could help the person to come to terms with the past. Freud’s theory of Psychoanalysis has helped to shape many therapies, with Psychoanalytical Psychotherapy and Psychodynamic Psychotherapy both therapies that focus on the unconscious mind.


There has been no shortage of Freud’s theory of repression. Some have suggested repression simply doesn’t exist, while others have questioned the science behind the theory. One study even found that those who used repression as a coping style actually had a tendency to avoid experiences of low mood [1].

Further controversy has related to Freud’s assertion of past traumas being in the unconscious mind. It has been suggested that traumatic events strengthen a person’s memory of said event, and that it is thus unlikely to be pushed to the back of the mind [2].

There have even been cases where false memories have been crafted through repression. The accuracy of any memories can never be proven to be absolutely accurate.


So while Freud’s theory has been used and followed for many years, there are many questions posed of its legitimacy. Most believe though that repression does exist, at least in some way.

Freud’s wider theory of psychoanalysis – where repression is a core concept – continues to be used in modern day psychology, and has helped many people. The debate will rage on regarding repression, it is unlikely that a consensus will ever be formed.

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[1]          Wang, Y., Luppi, A., Fawcett, J. & Anderson, M. (2019). Reconsidering unconscious persistence: Suppressing unwanted memories reduces their indirect expression in later thoughts. Cognition. 187, p78-94.

[2]          Ginzburg, K., Zahava, S. & Bleich, A. (2002). Repressive Coping Style, Acute Stress Disorder, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder After Myocardial Infarction. Psychosymatic Medicine. 64 (5), p748-757.