A Look into False Memory OCD
Check out our video on False Memory OCD!
What is false memory OCD?
False memory OCD causes an individual to have obsessive thoughts around a memory or event which in reality, didn’t actually happen: the memory is false. This article from a psychotherapist called Jon Hershfield explains that, “The event can be something that actually happened (but over which there is some confusion) or it can be something completely fabricated by the mind.”
These false memories cause a lot of distress for the individual and often feed into their obsessions. They will spend a great deal of time thinking about the memory. They will then carry out compulsions to try to ‘cope’ with the memory or to alleviate anxiety or guilt around it. A lot of the focus will be on ‘proving’ whether the memory is real or false. As time progresses, the memory often becomes more vivid and detailed. This is because the individual ‘feeds’ the memory by dwelling on it and giving it more attention.
An individual might struggle with one false memory at a time which they are extremely focused on, or they may have multiple false memories at once. False memories can last for a long period of time, lasting several months or even years. Sometimes a false memory lasts a relatively short time, such as a few weeks, and then passes: the memory which has passed is usually replaced by a new false memory, and so the cycle continues.
Types of false memories
False memories can accompany any type of obsession. They tend to be more common in those with obsessions around harm or sexual obsessions, with the false memories revolving around committing a crime or a shameful act related to their obsession. However, as mentioned, false memories can crop up for anyone with OCD, no matter what the theme of their obsessions.
There aren’t specific types of false memories which plague OCD sufferers: they can be about literally anything. However, it’s common for the false memories to be related to the obsessions. For example, if an individual has obsessions around harm, their false memory may be that they actually harmed someone in the past. Alternatively, if their obsessions are around contamination, their false memory may be that they touched something which was contaminated.
The false memories can be focused on long term memories, such as thinking back to many years ago and ‘recalling’ a memory of doing something terrible. For example if you have harm obsessions, you may ‘recall’ being on a night out years ago and having attacked someone, even though you didn’t!
False memories can also be in regard to short term memories. For example if you have sexual obsessions revolving around children, you might have been carrying out a daily task such as bathing your child, but later on find yourself panicking that you may have touched them inappropriately (even though you know logically you didn’t). You then go over this thought repeatedly in your mind and it starts to become a false memory. You can picture the details of it and see yourself doing it: this leads to you believing that you actually did something terrible.
Sometimes false memories can form after substance use, such as after a night out drinking or after the individual has taken drugs. An individual might fear that they acted on one of their obsessions when they weren’t in full control, and believe that the substance use is the reason they don’t remember the event clearly. As they dwell on this, the false memory begins to form and they convince themselves that the event must have happened.
What does false memory OCD feel like?
Having false memory OCD can be extremely distressing for the individual. Not only are you struggling with obsessions, compulsions, and high anxiety, you’re also battling with often horrific memories that can feel completely real.
You might feel that these memories make you the worst person in the world. The level of guilt you carry can be debilitating. The guilt can stop you from reaching out for help for fear of how you will be perceived or because you are ashamed to voice the details of the memory.
You might begin to doubt what’s real and what isn’t, which can enhance the doubt and anxiety that comes with OCD. This feeling of being uncertain of which memories are real and which are ‘‘fake’, can make you start to question everything. It can feel very confusing and worsen the cycle of OCD as you fixate on this uncertainty.
You might spend hours of each day carrying out compulsions related to the memory. This can be exhausting both emotionally and physically. Like other compulsions in OCD, this can interfere with daily functioning and cause your mood to plummet. The experience of false memory OCD can be very overwhelming and take its toll on the individual.
How false memories are created
You might be surprised to hear that false memories are natural and happen to lots of people (including those without OCD)! The process of storing memories is a complicated one and it doesn’t always go to plan. This 2019 article explains that, “Events are moved from your brain’s temporary memory to permanent storage while you sleep. The transition, however, isn’t absolute. Elements of the memory may be lost. This is where false memories can begin.”
There are multiple ways in which false memories can be ‘implanted’ or formed within your mind:
Suggestion can be very powerful. If someone asks you a specific question about an event, or suggests a detail of the event was different than you remember (even in passing conversation), your brain may change the memory accordingly.
If someone gives you incorrect information about an event and is very convincing (even if you know that’s not the case), your memory of the event might actually change. This article explains that, “You can create a new memory or combine real memories with artificial ones.”
- Inaccurate perception
If you perceive an event incorrectly, a memory may be formed around this perception. Alternatively, if you have gaps in your memory of an event, your brain may ‘fill in’ these gaps.
It’s common to remember small details of an event in the wrong order or to get things mixed up. Your brain may connect all of the small details you remember into one memory in your mind. This could even involve memories from another similar event.
The emotions you have around an event can impact what is stored as a memory in your mind. Research shows that, “negative emotions lead to more false memories than positive or neutral emotions.”
What causes false memory OCD?
So why do people with OCD find false memories so distressing, if other people don’t? Well just like intrusive thoughts (which everyone experiences), it’s the significance those with OCD attach to the thoughts or false memories which causes the problem, rather than the memories themselves.
Those without OCD might have a false memory and find it briefly annoying, puzzling, or even funny, then let it go. On the other hand those with OCD attach great significance to these memories, just as they do to their intrusive thoughts. They hold onto them and worry about them, and so they contribute to the OCD cycle.
Now we know how false memories can be formed, it’s easy to see how the false memories themselves can form around a distressing theme for someone with OCD. We know that how you perceive an event and the emotions you hold around an event can create false memories. Therefore, if you are fixated on the possibility of negative events happening or are very anxious about a specific topic due to your obsessions, this can translate into false memories around those obsessions.
There are also other factors which make those with OCD likely to attach significance to false memories. Let’s take a look.
One of the primary aspects of living with OCD is doubt! Sometimes it’s even referred to as ‘the doubting disease’! Those with OCD doubt themselves almost constantly, which fuels the anxiety which accompanies OCD. This article from the OCD Center of Los Angeles explains that, “OCD plays on an individual’s greatest fears, leading sufferers to question fundamental aspects of themselves and their character.”
Intrusive thoughts which come with OCD cause you to doubt whether you are a good person; to wonder whether these thoughts align with your true feelings; to doubt whether you are capable of something terrible, and so on! You might doubt whether you have carried out a compulsion fully. You might question whether you carried out a task properly. You may have doubts specific to your obsessions.
There are so many things OCD causes you to be doubtful about! All of this doubt can easily lead to you doubting your memories. It can lead to you attaching significance to the normal false memories most people experience. For example, if you had a false memory about hurting someone and this lines up with your harm obsessions and existing doubts about whether you are capable of that, you’re going to hold onto that memory and dwell on doubt about whether it’s real.
OCD and anxiety go hand in hand. If you live with OCD, it’s likely that you will almost constantly be in a state of high anxiety. This makes you more emotionally and mentally vulnerable to distressing false memories.
Intolerance of uncertainty
Those with OCD find it very difficult to deal with the uncertain, because it further fuels their self-doubt and anxiety. This intolerance of uncertainty is further fuelled by false memories, because you will feel very uncomfortable with the concept of not knowing whether the memory is true or false. You will feel driven to ‘find out’ whether the memory is true and be unable to accept the uncertainty of simply letting the memory pass.
Poor memory confidence
As we’ve mentioned, those with OCD are already very doubtful of themselves and their memories. It’s already common for those with OCD to question whether they did something, for example whether they turned an appliance off, whether they completed a daily task properly, or whether they carried out a compulsion correctly. This is often known as poor memory confidence. Regularly questioning the validity of your memories leaves room for false memories to develop more easily.
OCD is a deceiver
All of these factors which make someone with OCD more likely to fixate on false memories exist due to the nature of OCD. OCD is a liar and a deceiver. Your OCD thrives on the factors we’ve mentioned. It uses the opportunity of intrusive thoughts and false memories to create obsessions and strengthen its hold over you. The good news is, once you realise this and get the help you need, you can take your power back!
Is false memory OCD a separate diagnosis?
All forms of OCD are OCD. OCD is the diagnosis: there aren’t separate professional diagnoses for OCD. All OCD involves obsessions and compulsions. However, there are ‘nicknames’ commonly used within the mental health community to identify themes of OCD, or ‘types’ of OCD: this includes false memory OCD. These names simply help people to feel included in the OCD community and to identify symptoms they might be having more easily.
However, there are sometimes controversies around using these nicknames from professionals. Some professionals believe that they give the wrong impression. In regards to false memory OCD specifically, one profesional explains why they don’t like to use this title: “calling something “False Memory OCD” is already giving power to thoughts that the thoughts don’t deserve.”
Despite some controversy, these are names that you will often hear in relation to OCD and they are well used online, in the mental health community, in many informational resources, and among some professionals, so it’s important to understand what they are referring to.
False memory compulsions
Compulsions stemming from false memories tend to revolve around trying to prove or disprove the memory. This article explains that, “All compulsions for false memory fears boil down to trying to prove with 100% certainty that an unwanted thought is not a true memory of an unwanted event.”
Mental review is one of the most common compulsions for those with false memory OCD. This involves mentally going over the memory and your thoughts around it repeatedly to try to ‘figure out’ whether the memory is true.
The person will tend to focus on assessing whether the thought is a real memory or an intrusive thought. It’s common to want the memory to be an intrusive thought, because then you know it didn’t happen and that you aren’t the terrible person you’ve been thinking you are! This takes the responsibility away from you and onto your OCD.
Mental checking involves going over thoughts and checking other memories to try to find evidence of the memory being true or false. It can also involve regularly checking how you feel, to see if the memory ‘feels’ any more or less real than it did previously.
Physical checking refers to any overt or physical act to ‘check’ whether the memory is true or false. This might involve going back to a place involved in your memory to try to spark other details of the memory or to see how you feel. It might be seeking out objects or people involved in your memory to see whether they trigger a sense of the memory being real.
This could also involve doing research online, for example looking at pictures of places to see if they resonate with you, or checking the news to see if the event in your memory is mentioned. This article references this type of research, explaining that it could involve, “researching people online to make sure they were not harmed by the imagined event.”
Seeking reassurance involves other people: typically you’ll ask whether they remember the event or ask them to reassure that it didn’t happen. You may ask them to reassure you that it’s ‘just’ an intrusive thought or ‘just’ your OCD, and that you don’t need to worry about it.
You might ask loved ones or your therapist to reassure you. Alternatively, it could be reaching out to people from your past who might have been there when the event happened, to check what they remember and see if it fits with your memory.
Reassurance seeking itself might seem harmless. It can certainly be difficult for loved ones to refuse reassurance, especially if you seem distressed or frightened. However, by giving reassurance they are actually feeding into the OCD cycle. Reassurance contributes to your brain interpreting these thoughts as important, therefore perpetuating OCD.
Reassurance seeking may happen over and over again, even if you do get the answer you want. As with other compulsions, it only alleviates the anxiety for a short period of time before it comes back, and usually stronger! If you don’t get the answer you’re hoping for, it can lead to even more anxiety and more questions in your mind.
Many people with false memories, especially where they think they’ve done something terrible, will confess their actions to someone else. They might confess to someone they love, to their therapist or doctor, to a religious figure, or even to a stranger.
This type of compulsion can also involve repeatedly imagining confessing and figuring out who you will confess to. It can also entail mental debate about whether you should confess and the potential consequences of doing so.
The purpose of these confessions are to try to alleviate the sense of guilt and anxiety. Unfortunately, just like other compulsions, this only works for a short period of time and actually feeds the OCD cycle in the long term. It’s common to need to confess repeatedly, even to the same person, to try to gain the relief you seek.
What to do if you have symptoms of false memory OCD
If you feel that you have symptoms of false memory OCD, it can be really frightening. You might feel like your life is very out of control and be doubting yourself a lot. The first thing to do is try to take some deep breaths and remember that things can get better.
Monitor your symptoms
Just like with other forms of OCD, it’s a great idea to start monitoring your symptoms. You could jot them down as you notice them or keep a note in your phone. Keep note of the symptoms themselves, when you experience them, if they’re in reaction to any specific triggers, and how they affect you.
This can help you to see patterns in your symptoms. It can also give your doctor a clearer view of what’s happening, allowing them to give you a more accurate assessment and diagnosis. Knowing as much as possible about your symptoms can help you to focus your treatment more specifically, to bring the best possible results for you.
The next step is to seek treatment for your OCD. This could be through a referral from your doctor or mental health professional. Alternatively it could be a self-referral to mental health services depending on where you live. You could also choose to seek private face to face therapy, or seek online OCD therapy.
Be kind to yourself
You’re going through a lot, so it’s really important to be kind to yourself. OCD can convince you to do otherwise, so this might be tough at first. Do your best to find opportunities to be gentle with yourself. Practice self-care, for example setting aside time to relax, eating well, and doing some exercise. Work on self-love, for example using positive daily affirmations and replacing negative self talk with positive alternatives.
It’s vital you find support aside from your treatment. This could be from loved ones you trust, from a local support group, from others who understand online, or from a hotline. Talking things through with someone and knowing that you have that support there can be so helpful.
Things to bear in mind
It’s not possible to tell whether the memories are real
Unfortunately it’s not possible to definitively figure out whether your memories are real or false. For those without OCD, figuring out the reality of false memories often revolves around gathering evidence to corroborate the memory: for those with OCD, this will only feed into the OCD cycle and worsen anxiety levels.
Instead of trying to prove whether the memory is real or false, you will learn through treatment to release this desperate need to know and break the OCD cycle. This uncertainty will panic you and that’s normal for someone with OCD. Try to remember that this anxiety around the unknown will lessen as you progress through your treatment.
False memories are ‘normal’
Remember what we discussed earlier: false memories are normal! Everybody has them. In themselves, these memories aren’t anything to be afraid of. They don’t make you ‘strange’, and you don’t need to be ashamed of them.
It’s also important to remember that false memories might occur in the future even after your OCD treatment. The difference is, that after treatment you won’t attach such significance to these memories and instead, will let them pass you by. You might not even notice them!
Having false memories doesn’t make you a bad person
Although your OCD is telling you otherwise, having false memories does not make you a bad person. Just like intrusive thoughts, false memories in OCD don’t reflect your true values. They don’t mean you’re a risk to others!
Having false memories doesn’t make you different than others with OCD
Names like ‘false memory OCD’ are designed to specify the type of OCD you’re suffering from and to help you get the help you need. They’re designed to make you feel included within the OCD community, rather than to make you feel excluded. You are no different than other people with OCD. All forms of OCD are OCD, and all are valid.
Treating false memory OCD
Just as with other forms of OCD, there are effective treatments for false memory OCD which can help you to reduce your symptoms and reclaim your life.
Your doctor or mental health professional may prescribe you medication to help reduce your symptoms. This is usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are a type of antidepressant. They help to correct chemical imbalance within your brain to ease your OCD. They often work best when combined with psychological therapy.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
CBT works to replace negative thinking patterns and the behaviours which often stem from these thought patterns, with more positive, helpful thought patterns. Through CBT you will learn to address the negative thinking patterns which fuel OCD and lead to compulsions. Over time you’ll be given the tools you need to break the OCD cycle and cope with your anxiety in more productive ways.
Exposure and response prevention (ERP)
ERP is a form of CBT which focuses on actively breaking the cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Through ERP you will be guided through facing triggers for your obsessions, without reacting with compulsions. This will be done in a very gradual, manageable way. As you begin to see that nothing bad happened when you didn’t carry out a compulsion, and you feel your anxiety gradually reducing, you will reduce your OCD symptoms.
With false memory OCD, you’ll be guided through triggers of your false memories, learning to let the memories pass you by without reacting with a compulsion. Over time you’ll feel your anxiety falling around these memories and realise that you don’t need to dwell on them or react to them.
Mindfulness promotes a sense of true relaxation and stress reduction by helping you to be present in the moment. This tackles the stress and anxiety which come with OCD, and therefore eases OCD symptoms. The tools you learn through guided mindfulness can then help you to be mindful and present in your daily life, allowing you to continue controlling your symptoms moving forward. Mindfulness can even help you to sleep more restfully!
Mindfulness can help you to let your battle with false memories go, instead letting them float by you without attaching such significance to them. This article explains, “To be mindful of your false memory obsession is to acknowledge that you are grappling with a thought and thoughts are not necessary to fight with. Thoughts are there to be observed as they pass by, but you have to let them pass by.”
Although false memory OCD can be incredibly difficult to live with, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Once you reach out for help, you can get your symptoms under control and overcome your OCD.
Jon Hershfield, MFT, (2017), “Did We Already Discuss False Memories and OCD?” Sheppard Pratt.
Kimberly Holland, (2019), “False Memory: What You Need to Know”. Healthline.
Manoj K Doss, Jamila K Picart, David A Gallo, (2020), “Creating emotional false recollections: Perceptual recombination and conceptual fluency mechanisms”. Emotion. 2020 Aug;20(5):750-760.
OCD Center of Los Angeles, (2016), “Doubt, Denial and OCD”.