Published On: February 3, 2022
Reviewed On: December 8, 2022
Updated On: November 16, 2023
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) always involves obsession and compulsion. However, those can look different depending on the different types of OCD. False memory OCD is a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder that can cause people to doubt memories of a past event(s). It can also make them wonder if they did something but can’t remember. Recognizing false memories of OCD can help you avoid being swept away by doubts and fear.
Keep reading to learn more about false memory OCD, including how to identify the signs and symptoms, what causes it, and how it can be treated.
As the name implies, false memory OCD is marked by intrusive thoughts related to past memories and the ability to recall them accurately.
“False memory obsessive-compulsive disorder is a subtype of OCD characterized by intrusive self-doubts and false memories of doing something wrong. Sometimes these memories can feel so real that the person struggling with them has difficulty understanding what’s true and what isn’t. These intrusive thoughts and compulsions can cause anxiety, fear, and confusion regarding whether or not something occurred.”
These obsessive thought loops can include doubts about the accuracy of a memory. They can stem from OCD and thinking you’ve done something you haven’t. It’s common for false memory OCD to cause anxiety over fear of wrongdoing, which can make symptoms extremely upsetting.
Studies suggest that people with OCD are more likely to experience rich false memories. False memories OCD takes this to an extreme. The distressing thoughts around false memories can lead individuals to participate in compulsive behavior in the hopes that they’ll be able to determine whether or not they’re recalling a real memory.
“False OCD can often cause an individual to need to be reassured again and again and again about the same situation, even when proven that the situation did or didn’t occur — it is still met with doubt.”
It’s common for people with any type of OCD to ask for reassurance. Someone with false memory OCD, though, may become fixated on searching for evidence that proves or disproves their version of events.
When someone has false memories OCD, it can be incredibly difficult for them to believe their memories are true. They may have intense doubts about what they recall or extreme fear they’ve forgotten about a horrible act.
False memory OCD, like other forms of OCD, causes obsessive intrusive thought patterns. Examples of obsessions in false OCD can include:
False memories can cause extreme distress and anxiety. To cope with those feelings, people with false memory OCD may feel urged to engage in compulsions. Typical compulsions seen in people who have false memory syndrome might include things such as:
“Symptoms can include rumination, obsessive cleaning, intrusive thoughts and worrying, lack of confidence, and uncertainty about what’s real and what is not.”
The causes of OCD aren’t entirely clear. Neuroimaging studies show that people with OCD share similar brain abnormalities. Other research suggests that genetics and environmental factors can also play a role. It’s common for any OCD symptom to appear after a stressful or traumatic experience.
Many people assume that rich false memories are rare, but the reality is they’re relatively common. While most people can shrug it off when they realize their memories aren’t on point, someone with OCD may fixate on their false memories.
Once someone realizes that their recollection of an event may not be accurate, they might start to doubt or question all of their memories. This feeling of uncertainty can be very upsetting, and it’s frequently a trigger for obsessive thoughts.
Most people respond very well to OCD treatment, regardless of what type they have. Treating OCD that causes you to think you’ve done something you haven’t can seem challenging and typically requires professional help. However, many evidence-based OCD treatments consistently deliver excellent results.
For people with OCD, obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors feel connected. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy that can help people break these connections, challenge distressing or irrational thoughts, and stop harmful repetitive behavior. It’s a highly effective form of OCD treatment, with research finding that as many as 70% of people respond positively.
The term CBT refers to a broad range of therapy techniques. One of these is known as exposure and response therapy (ERT). This style of therapy involves exposing people with OCD to triggers in a safe, therapeutic environment and teaching them to deal with their feelings without resorting to compulsive behaviors. Over time, exposure therapy for OCD can relieve the anxiety caused by intrusive thoughts.
While individual therapy can be highly effective, many people with OCD respond positively to support groups and group therapy. In fact, some research suggests that individual and group therapy are equally effective when it comes to treating OCD symptoms.
One of the most significant advantages of group therapy is that it allows participants to build a support system. It gives people a chance to meet others who are struggling with the same challenges they are. Being in a group setting can also motivate people to commit to change.
If someone with OCD has severe symptoms, they may find it challenging to focus on treatment. OCD medications can improve symptoms and relieve feelings of anxiety, which can help people get more out of treatment sessions. While medication technically can be used alone, it’s more effective when used in conjunction with psychotherapy.
OCD can be treated with antidepressants, but other psychiatric medications can be used, too. Some of the medications that are FDA-approved for treating OCD include clomipramine, sertraline, and fluoxetine.
Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS): The majority of people with OCD respond to psychotherapy and medication. However, there are additional options in cases when these aren’t effective. For example, an intervention known as repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can be beneficial. TMS is a non-invasive deep brain stimulation type that uses electric pulses in certain brain parts.
Inpatient or outpatient treatment programs: People with severe OCD symptoms typically need professional help, and might be admitted into intensive outpatient or inpatient treatment programs. These programs typically use medication and CBT as primary treatment plans, but they allow people to receive care in a controlled hospital setting. Programs usually last a few weeks, and friends or family members can be included in the treatment process.
It’s not unusual to have a false or inaccurate memory, but if you obsess over your memories, it might be time to talk to a mental health professional to get an OCD diagnosis. The symptoms you’re experiencing could be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
At Talkspace, you can connect with a licensed mental health professional who has experience treating OCD. With their help, you’ll be able to learn how to recognize false memories of OCD and cope with the symptoms you’re facing. You don’t have to live with OCD — you can find effective coping tools to manage the symptoms of your condition and go on to live a full, rewarding life.
Get started with online therapy for OCD today.
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Dr. Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW is a Therapist and Peer Consultant at Talkspace. She is a California born - Florida based Licensed Clinical Social Worker and an Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Central Florida. Her areas of research, teaching and practice include the intersection of race, gender and ability, intimate partner violence and trauma recovery, and access to culturally responsive mental health treatment for Black women and Deaf women.