Recently, many Americans have embraced therapies designed to manage traumatic memories, which have shown to be effective in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts increasingly advocate screening patients for adverse childhood experiences as an important step in providing physical and mental health treatment.
The new findings in JAMA Psychiatry suggest therapy that seeks to alleviate depression and anxiety by trying to unearth repressed memories is ineffective, said Dr. Danese, who works at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College.
But he cautioned that the results of the study should not be interpreted as endorsing the avoidance of distressing memories, which could make them “scarier” in the long term. Instead, they point to the promise of therapies that seek to “reorganize” and moderate memories.
“It’s not about deleting the memory, but having the memory and being more in control of that so that the memory feels less scary,” he said.
Memory has always posed a challenge in the field of child protection because many abuse cases involve children below the age of 3, when lasting memories begin to form, said David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, who was not involved in the study.
In treating people with histories of having been abused, he said, clinicians must rely on sketchy, incomplete and changing accounts. “All we have is their memories, so it’s not like we have a choice,” he said.
He warned against concluding that forgotten maltreatment has no lingering effect. Early abuse may emerge through what he described as “residues” — difficulty in modulating emotions, feelings of worthlessness or, in the case of sexual abuse victims, the urge to provide sexual gratification to others.