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Unraveling False Memory OCD

Reviewed by Laura Angers, LPC · November 27, 2020 ·

What Is False Memory OCD?

False memory OCD is a condition that is primarily characterized by a person having obsessive thoughts based on an event or a memory which actually did not happen in reality, in other words, the memory is fiction.

Jon Hershfield, a psychotherapist, explained 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 that the person is having may cause them some significant level of distress and often times, it may fuel their obsessions. They are likely to spend a lot of time thinking all about those memories. This may then cause them to perform some compulsive actions in an attempt to cope better with memories they are having or to reduce the guilt or anxiety that those memories may be causing. Over time, as the person gives the memories more attention, they become more detailed and vivid.

It is possible that a person may just be dealing with just one false memory at a particular point in time or they could experience multiple false memories all at the same time. The false memories may last for months and even years. When a false memory passes after some weeks, it gets replaced by another one and this may keep repeating itself in a cycle.

Types Of False Memories

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Though false memories are likely to be more common in persons whose obsessions are based on certain themes like sexual obsessions or harm, they can actually accompany any other type of obsession.

There are actually no clear-cut types of false memories that may affect persons who have OCD. It is possible for the false memories to be about practically anything. Often times, the false memories may be connected to their obsessions. For instance, if a person’s obsessions center on contamination, they may have false memories about touching a contamination object or surface.

False memories may be long term in the sense of memories that ‘supposedly’ occurred years or months back or they could be short term like in terms of daily activities or activities that ‘supposedly’ occurred recently.

There is also the likelihood of false memories being formed after substance use like after the use of drugs or heavy consumption of alcohol. Situations around substance use may cause the person involved to develop anxious thinking they may have carrying out an action based on their obsessions when they seemed not to have been in total control and then they tend to assume that the reason they are unable to remember whatever happened vividly is because of their substance use. Over time, false memories may form on these circumstances.

How Are False Memories Made?

False memories are not unique to persons who have OCD. They happen generally to people who do not have OCD. The way the brain stores information and memories is a pretty complicated one and this may sometimes cause false memories to be made.

There are a number of ways through which false memories may be created in the mind. These include:

  • Suggestion

Suggestions can be a very powerful force. Your mind is capable of forming false memories that are prompted by statements or questions you hear. For instance, if you are asked a particular question about a particular event, your brain may alter the memory to suit the new suggestion. This may also happen if a person suggests to you a different detail of the event from what you actually remember.

  • Misinformation

If a person feeds you false or improper information concerning an event, there is the likelihood that you may believe them and you will feel convinced that it happened the way you just heard it. At that point, your brain may go ahead to establish a new memory of that event or merge artificial memories with actual ones.

  • Misattribution

There is the possibility that you may merge various elements from various events into one event.

What this causes it that when you try to recollect the memory, you begin to recollect these several events as one. Your brain may jumble the timeline or be confused about the order of events because it is now a singular memory in your mind.

  • Inaccurate perception

If your perception of an event is correct, your brain will form a memory around this event. On the other hand, if your perception of the event is incorrect or it is missing some parts, your brain will go ahead to fill up the missing parts, thus creating a false memory.

  • Emotions

The emotions you have at a particular time may significantly affect how you store certain events as memories and what part of those memories you store. Research has shown that negative emotions may cause more false memories as opposed to emotions that are neutral or positive.

Causes Of False Memory OCD

There are certain factors that increase the likelihood of persons who have OCD to attach some significance to their false memories. They include:

  • Doubt

One area persons who have OCD may find challenging is being able to live with their doubts. An article states that “OCD plays on an individual’s greatest fears, leading sufferers to question fundamental aspects of themselves and their character.”

People with OCD may focus too much on their doubts and this may cause them to place significance on their false memories.

  • High levels of anxiety

Anxiety is another major characteristic of OCD. Persons who have OCD have the tendency to constantly have high levels of anxiety. This increases the chances of them being vulnerable and open to false memories, both mentally and emotionally.

  • Intolerance of uncertainty

Persons who have OCD tend to deal poorly with uncertainties. This is because it feeds their anxiety and self-doubt. This inability to tolerate uncertainty becomes fed by false memories.

  • Poor memory confidence

Alongside the self-doubt that most persons with OCD may experience, they may seem unable to trust their own memory which often leaves them questioning the validness of their memories.

Is False Memory OCD Diagnosed Separately?

All the forms of OCD that exists are still classified together as OCD and are diagnosed as OCD. So the “types” of OCD referred to are more or less just nicknames that are used amidst members and professionals of the mental health community, in lots of informational resources and in online materials for easier identification of the various themes of OCD they represent.

False Memory Compulsions

Woman Holding Forehead at Night

Compulsions that stem from false memories hold the tendency to revolve around attempts to either prove the memory or to disprove the memory. The compulsions manifest in various forms like the following:

  • Mental review

Mental review happens to be one of the very common compulsions that persons who have false memory OCD may experience. This is characterized by the individual mentally going over their memory and thoughts repeatedly in an attempt to figure out if a particular memory is through.

As a result, the person often tends to hope that the memory they are assessing is an intrusive thought and not a real memory.

  • Mental checking

This involves a person going over their thoughts and checking their other memories in an attempt to gather enough evidence to determine if a particular memory is true or false. It may also involve periodically checking how they are feeling just to know if a particular memory feels more real or less real that they felt before then.

  • Physical checking

This refers to physical activities that are carried out with the intent on confirming whether a memory is true or not. This may involve returning to a location involved in the memory to help trigger more details of that particular memory.  It may also involve carrying out online research just to be sure the memory is just the way they know it.

  • Reassurance Seeking

This involves the person constantly asking other people whether they also remember an event or asking other people to give them the reassurance that an event did not occur in reality. They may also ask to get a reassurance that their OCD is responsible for the intrusive thoughts and that they have no need to worry.

This urge to seek reassurance however does not subside. It just creates a stronger need to seek reassurance.

  • Confessing

A number of people who experience false memories tend to have the urge to confess some things to another person, particularly if they think that they have carried out an action that may seem terrible. They may confess to a loved one, a religious figure, a doctor or therapist or even a total stranger.

This kind compulsion may cause them to constantly imagine they are confessing and trying to pick who to confess to. It may also involve a heated mental debate regarding whether they should confess or not and the possible consequences of confessing.

However, confessing only reduces their anxiety and sense of guilt temporarily.

Steps To Take When You Notice False Memory OCD Symptoms

If you start to notice that you are exhibiting some of the symptoms that accompany false memory OCD, it may be quite a frightening experience. But know that help is out there, and OCD is treatable.

Women Sitting on Couch

Here are a number of things you can do if you notice that you have some symptoms:

  • Keep An Eye On The Symptoms

Once you notice any symptoms, monitor them. Keep notes about how they happen and any other details you notice. It will help you understand the possible pattern of events and help your doctor or therapist understand what you are experiencing.

  • Get Treatment

It is never too late to get your OCD treated. You can contact your doctor or mental health professional. 

  • Do Not Be Hard On Yourself

As a result of what you may be going through, you might act tough on yourself. But it is best to treat yourself with love and kindness during times like this, it will give your mind space to cope.

  • Find Support

Aside from your treatment, it is recommended that you build a support system that may consist of people you love and trust. 

Things To Note

It may be almost impossible to determine if some memories are true or otherwise. Instead of dwelling so much on that, here are a few things you can keep in mind:

  • False memories are a normal experience for everyone
  • You are not different from other people who have OCD because you are experiencing false memories.

Treatment Of OCD

As mentioned earlier, all types OCD will be diagnosed and treated the same way:

  • Medication
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Exposure and Response Prevention

If you think that you probably have false memory OCD, reach out today. Take this test to find out more about your symptoms.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can OCD give you false memories?
How can you tell if a memory is false OCD?
How do you overcome false OCD memories?
How do you tell if it's a false memory?
What mental illness causes false memories?
Can overthinking cause false memories?
Can anxiety convince you of things that aren't true?
Will false memories go away?
How do I stop OCD from ruining my life?
Does OCD affect lifespan?

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