What could be more reliable than your own recollection of an incident or event, right? Unfortunately, while it’s natural to trust our memories, some people experience false memories, where they have a skewed or completely fabricated memory of something in the past.
Many people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)¹ may develop false memories. For example, someone with false memories may be convinced they’ve done something wrong when they haven’t.
People who are aware of their false memories may find it difficult to trust themselves. Fortunately, like other manifestations of OCD, false memories are manageable through appropriate treatment.
Researchers are studying thousands of new treatments and you could be a part of finding a cure while accessing the newest treatments for Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
When you "remember" something that didn't happen, that's a false memory. It's possible that some of what you recall is true, while other details are hazy or inaccurate. Sometimes, nothing about memory is true or actually happened.
Some false memories are unpleasant, and persistent false memories can cause significant distress.
Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition² does not recognize false memories as a symptom of OCD, many people with the condition report having them.
People with OCD may experience recurrent intrusive thoughts that lead them to question their past behaviors. This can result in individuals questioning the reliability of their memory and relying on others to reassure them.
False memories can center around a range of events and situations. For example, if a person with OCD engages in conversation with a coworker at a busy conference and senses the coworker is behaving differently in the days that follow, the person may worry they said or did something inappropriate and may reach out to colleagues for reassurance.
Of course, this situation could pertain to anyone. However, in someone with OCD, these worries may lead to false memories that become obsessions characterized by persistent, unsettling thoughts about the incident.
Compulsive checking or other rituals can temporarily relieve anxiety caused by recurrent worries, but they aren’t a long-term solution.
Some of the common causes of false memories include:
Suggestions, where memories are altered in response to external cues such as questions or recommendations
Misinformation, where memories change to align with false information
Misattribution, where memory is true on some level but becomes integrated into a memory of an unrelated situation
Inaccurate perception, where a memory develops based on an incorrect interpretation of an experience or where false recollections are used to fill in the blanks
Emotions, where feelings surrounding a situation or event influence a person’s memory (false memories are more likely to form while experiencing a negative emotion)
When someone with OCD experiences obsession, they may form false memories around the same event or situation. Common obsessions include:
When a person with OCD fears accidentally hurting themselves or others, that fear can become an obsession. For example, the affected person may fear they’ve left the stove on despite checking numerous times. The fear results in an unhealthy obsession with checking to ensure the danger isn't imminent.
People with OCD may experience intrusive thoughts of a religious, violent, or sexual nature. Most often, people don't act on these thoughts but still feel anxious about them.
Individuals who experience these obsessions may develop related false memories. For example, they may believe that they did something wrong to someone or that they definitely left an appliance on that will start a fire.
Additional factors that can trigger false memories in OCD include:
Doubt: Doubt about a situation or outcome can lead to false memories.
Anxiety: False memories are more likely to form in high-anxiety situations.
Poor memory confidence: If a person doesn’t trust their memory, they may be more susceptible to false memories.
Intolerance of uncertainty: Living in a world of unknowns can be challenging for a person with OCD, and a lack of predictability may influence false memories.
False memory OCD is characterized by a cyclical pattern of intrusive, repetitive thoughts and behaviors that lead to inaccurate recollections. Some signs of False Memory OCD include:
A person with false memory OCD may feel compelled to continually recheck to confirm danger isn’t present. For example, a person who falsely remembers opening the patio door before bed may recheck it numerous times to ensure it’s closed and locked and there’s no risk of intruders opening the door to enter. Checking the doors before bed is normal, but it's repetitive and disruptive in a person with OCD.
People with false memory OCD may seek reassurance from others to assess their perception of the situation or event. For example, suppose a person with false memory OCD is involved in a fender bender. In that situation, they may persistently seek reassurance from their passenger that they weren’t at fault, even if it’s obvious. Of course, it’s natural to second-guess the chain of events in a stressful situation, but when doubts lead to obsession, they can be harmful.
People who experience the triggers of false memory, including doubt, anxiety, and poor memory confidence, may be more likely to confess to something they didn’t do. According to one team of researchers,³ people who have individual vulnerabilities and people who distrust their memories are at an increased risk of falsely confessing.
False memories in OCD frequently focus on existing obsessions. For instance, if your obsessions are harm-based and there’s a fire at your apartment building, you may obsessively worry that you left your stove on. As you continue to think about it, you may form false memories about turning your stove on and leaving.
Managing your obsessions and compulsions can be accomplished in several ways, including medication and cognitive behavior therapy, as well as the following self-help strategies:
Practicing mindfulness and meditation to lessen the intensity of anxious or compulsive thoughts and feelings
Engaging in creative activities to relax and de-stress
Maintaining a healthy routine that involves eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly
Journaling, making lists, and completing worksheets to help recognize and overcome OCD symptoms
False memories, especially those related to obsessions, are common among people with OCD. False memories are disturbing, but OCD is treatable. Finding a therapist, recognizing your triggers, and managing your stress levels are all beneficial.
Coping with false memories is challenging. However, with the proper treatment, people with false memories and other symptoms of OCD can improve their symptoms.
The team at HealthMatch can help you take control of your false memories. Contact us today!
Yes, people with OCD are susceptible to false memories and may believe they’ve done something (or failed to do something) when that’s not the case.
Anyone can experience false memories, especially surrounding high-stress or anxiety-inducing situations. For example, a person may worry about making a bad impression at a work meeting — that’s normal. However, if the person can’t stop thinking about the situation or perceives changes in a colleague’s behavior toward them, they may form false memories that they said or did something wrong.
If you experience obsessions, compulsions, and other symptoms of OCD, such as false memories, you may wonder if you have a less impactful version of the disorder. Some people do have high-functioning OCD.
While they suffer from the same cyclic patterns, people with high-functioning OCD can lead relatively normal lives. While having some symptoms of OCD doesn’t necessarily indicate you have the disorder, it’s a good idea to see your doctor if you’re uneasy.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder | National Institute of Mental Health
What is the DSM-5? Resource guide | Psych Central
Creating false memories | University of Wahington
What are the 4 types of OCD? | Med Circle
What is false memory OCD? | Compassion Behavioral Health
Understanding high functioning OCD | Psych Central