Although we often feel that we can trust our own versions of events, it’s possible to have false memories. This is common for many people living with OCD.
Do people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have a bad memory? Not necessarily. When we refer to false memories, we mean that some people might “remember” an event differently from how it actually happened.
This challenge may lead them to experience poor memory confidence, meaning they doubt their ability to recollect past events.
OCD can be managed, though, and doing so can help with symptoms of false memory OCD.
A false memory is when you “remember” something that didn’t actually happen. It might be that parts of that recollection are accurate while other parts aren’t, or it might be that the way you remember things is entirely off from what went on.
For example, you might “remember” that you turned on the coffee maker before taking a shower but then find out you didn’t when you come out ready for that cup of coffee.
In some cases, false memories might be more upsetting. It’s possible to have false memories around traumatic events that didn’t happen or to remember traumatic events differently.
False memories might be attributed to mental health conditions like OCD, but not everybody who has false memories lives with a mental health condition, and not everyone with OCD has false memories.
Although false memories are not a formal symptom of OCD as established in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, many people with the disorder have reported experiencing them.
“False memory OCD” isn’t a separate diagnosis from regular OCD — anyone with OCD might experience false memories.
When you have OCD, you may experience false memories that feel like real experiences. This may lead you to doubt your recollection of important events or your memory performance in general. This lack of confidence, in turn, may lead you to more false memories.
It’s also possible you may not remember parts of an event and may fill in the gaps with something that you fear happened.
For example, maybe you frequently fear saying something offensive to people at your office. You know you spoke to your boss during the company holiday party, but you can’t remember exactly what you said.
You notice they seem a bit distant today, and you wonder if you said something offensive during that conversation and just can’t remember it.
You can’t stop thinking about last night’s party, going over every detail of the encounter, fearing that you did say horrible things to your boss. You start asking your colleagues about the incident because you’re convinced you said something.
False memories in OCD can manifest as obsessions and vice versa. False memories become recurrent and intrusive thoughts that, in turn, increase doubts about what really happened.
These persistent doubts (obsessions) might cause you to constantly check or engage in rituals to relieve the distress they cause you (compulsions).
When this happens repeatedly, experts call it false memory OCD. This refers to an OCD theme around false memories.
What are the themes in OCD?
Many people with OCD have one or multiple “themes” in their obsessions and compulsions.
An OCD theme is the topic of an obsessive thought.
For example, with the harm OCD theme, you experience distress about the possibility of hurting other people.
With contamination OCD, you might experience significant anxiety about cleanliness, disease, and germs.
With relationship OCD, you’ll have obsessive thoughts relating to your loved ones.
With false memory OCD, your obsessions are about past events that you fear happened but have no clear recollection of.
Obsessions in OCD are difficult to shake off or control. The more you experience an intrusive thought, the more real it becomes to you. You start thinking about it from every angle, reviewing every possibility.
For example, you might have obsessive thoughts about saying something hurtful to your partner. You fear that this will happen and that you’ll blurt out something that hurts them.
This obsession might cause you to mentally see yourself saying those hurtful things, even though you don’t want to.
Your imagination might be so clear that, in time, you’re actually not sure whether you did or didn’t say that during your last conversation.
As a result, you might seek constant reassurance from your partner or from others to figure out whether you said something offensive.
Another example: Someone with false memory OCD might have a consensual sexual encounter, but later they may worry that the person they were with didn’t consent.
They might imagine a scenario where the other person didn’t consent in such detail that they become convinced they assaulted that person.
To reassure themselves, the person with OCD might engage in “checking” behaviors or seek reassurance from others to find out what actually happened.
However, these behaviors — which could be classified as compulsions — seldom bring the person relief. Often, the person continues to have obsessive thoughts about the event, even after performing the compulsions.
No. A cognitive distortion is a common pattern of thinking that’s usually not based on evidence and leads you to see yourself and the world in a more negative way. Think of it as a filter you use over your thoughts that may lead you to see things one way or another.
Cognitive distortions are common in people living with or without OCD. In other words, everyone uses them.
A false memory isn’t a pattern of thoughts. It’s actually a recollection of a past event that’s not accurate. In other words, it’s remembering something in a slightly or completely different way than how it really happened.
One small 2018 study published in Psychological Medicine looked at 36 adolescents with OCD and 36 adolescents without OCD. When completing two memory tasks to measure learning and cognitive flexibility, those with OCD showed significant impairments in both learning and memory.
People with OCD also tend to have poor confidence in their memories and may be more prone to experiencing false memories.
Research hasn’t established whether OCD is the cause of these impairments or whether these neurocognitive challenges lead to symptoms of OCD. It’s possible that underlying factors that contribute to memory problems also lead to OCD.
Typically, false memories in OCD manifest around existing obsessions.
In other words, the topic of many false memories may be the same as the topic of your obsessions.
For example, you may experience obsessions about hurting your sister. You fear you’ll hurt her in some way, and this causes you great distress. When you see her come home one day with an arm injury, you can’t remember whether you did something that caused such an injury.
At some point, after repeatedly thinking about your sister’s injury, you may even remember pushing her. This, in reality, was an intrusive thought you had a few days ago, but now it feels like a memory of something that really happened.
Managing false memories in OCD is possible, and it includes all the things you’d do to treat the disorder itself.
As you learn to manage your symptoms, you might find that your confidence in your memories increases and your obsessions aren’t as potent, resulting in fewer false memories.
There are a few effective treatments for OCD as well as some self-care strategies you can try.
The first approach for managing false memory OCD is psychotherapy.
In particular, a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure response prevention (ERP) is particularly effective with OCD. It involves learning to tolerate not engaging in compulsions when you experience your obsessions.
ERP for false memory OCD may include resisting the urge to look for validation and reassurance about something you think you did but can’t remember.
For example, if you fear that you’ve walked out of a restaurant without paying, part of the treatment would be to resist the urge to check your bank statements or call the restaurant to ask whether you paid.
Other kinds of therapy may also help with OCD management:
- acceptance and commitment therapy
- psychodynamic therapy
- imaginal exposure
There aren’t any medications specifically prescribed for false memory OCD. However, some people with OCD do benefit from taking certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which can help with overlapping symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Many self-care strategies can help you manage your emotions, avoid situations that induce OCD symptoms, and improve your self-awareness.
Self-care strategies for OCD can include:
- eating a diet based on fresh foods
- sleeping 8 hours every day
- getting at least 10 minutes of daily exercise
- engaging in creative hobbies
- other stress-management techniques
You might also benefit from accessing OCD resources and joining an OCD support group.
People with OCD might experience false memories, especially in relation to their obsessions.
While false memories can be disconcerting, OCD is manageable. Finding a therapist, increasing your awareness of primary obsessions, and managing stress can also help you.