False Memory OCD

Have you ever been obsessed with a memory of something that you're not sure really happened? In this article, we're going to explore a disorder provoked by false memories.
False Memory OCD
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 16 June, 2023

People with false memory OCD or those who are focused on false memories experience great discomfort as they don’t know if the disturbing images in their heads are real. Suddenly, the memory of an action committed or an event suffered comes to them and they don’t know whether it’s real or fantasy. Moreover, the idea that these events might be real makes them feel even more anxious.

This condition is a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder. It can produce considerable psychosocial impairment. Although anyone can face these experiences at some point, they’re more frequent in sufferers of psychological disorders.

False memory OCD occurs with obsessions (the sufferer thinks that something really bad has happened that they can’t  remember) and compulsions (they carry out inappropriate actions to channel their anxiety).

Anxious woman suffering from false memories OCD
An OCD sufferer will often distort their memory by introducing disturbing images.

False memory OCD

One example of false memory OCD would be for an individual to suddenly remember that someone hit them at a party years ago but not know if it was true or not. Or, they might think that they stole something from their best friend but aren’t sure. They could even have an image of themselves cheating on their partner but not know if it really happened.

This condition involves intrusive thoughts based on doubts that eat away at the sufferer. They obsess and find themselves returning to the distressing event, which may not even be true. They feel restless and morally worried that they’ve done something unethical or unworthy.

Research conducted by the University of Georgia (USA) states that this lack of confidence in memory also leads to compulsive behavior. This consists of repetitive physical or mental behaviors which help to alleviate the sufferer’s anxiety.

How does it manifest?

Living with false memory OCD can completely govern the life of the sufferer. For example, going to work and seeing their boss might cause them to remember making fun of them a few days before. But, not knowing if this is really true makes them anxious and subject to maladjusted behavior.

The following characteristics manifest in this subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

  • Exhaustion.
  • Suicidal ideation.
  • Constant anxiety.
  • Avoidant behaviors.
  • Feelings of loneliness.
  • Deterioration in social relationships.
  • The appearance of rituals (compulsions).
  • Sleep and eating disorders.
  • Constant and intrusive guilt in cognitive processes.
  • Inability to focus attention, solve problems, and be productive.
  • Thoughts become obsessive. For example: “Have I run over someone and forgotten about it?”
  • Sufferers spend a great deal of time and energy reviewing certain of their memories, to try and discover if they’re true or not.
  • If it’s maintained over time, it can lead the sufferer to develop other disorders such as depression

A common experience among sufferers of OCD is doubt. In fact, they question themselves, their worth, and their skills. Moreover, they feel insecure, which can lead to the development of false memories.

The causes of false memory OCD

An OCD sufferer will frequently distort their memories by passing them through a compulsive and distressing mental filter. Consequently, they can turn an ordinary memory into a traumatic one and be unable to differentiate what’s real from what they’ve made up. Sometimes, they do it by mentally reviewing certain situations obsessively and wondering what would’ve happened if they’d done something different.

Ultimately, the energy they invest is so high that their mind fragments and their memory becomes completely altered and blurred. However, false memory OCD doesn’t appear in all patients on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum. But, those who do exhibit it present extremely disabling clinical pictures.

You might be interested to read The Neurobiology of OCD

1. Genetic origins

A study conducted by several universities in 2019 claims that obsessive-compulsive disorder could have a genetic origin. They state the key lies in the serotonergic, catecholaminergic, and glutamatergic genes. They increase the individual’s vulnerability of suffering from false memories.

2. Trauma

A traumatic event is one of the most common triggers for OCD. But, distorted memories may or may not be linked to trauma. As a rule, false memories develop on the most varied events and not just because of one painful moment from yesterday.

A traumatic past increases an individual’s vulnerability to false memories. They might develop alterations in their memory and start to mistrust it. This generates great anguish.

In light of the above, we can confirm that false memories can develop about any event, they don’t have to be related to a traumatic past. Indeed, memory distortion and difficulty distinguishing between reality and fantasy can occur in a variety of circumstances, including in individuals with no history of significant trauma. Therefore, trauma is a potential trigger but not a determinant.

3. Environmental factors

The possibility of developing false memory OCD increases when the genetic condition is combined with stressful environmental factors. For example, growing up in a dysfunctional or violent family increases the risk of suffering from this kind of mental disorder.

False memories tend to be more severe in the context of OCD. This makes the sufferer more vulnerable to the development of depressive disorders.

Patient in psychological therapy treating OCD from false memories
False memory OCD therapy employs the EPR technique.

Treatment of false memory OCD

False memory OCD is a serious mental condition that can lead to suicidal ideation. The feeling of having done something wrong and not remembering it outlines a mental scenario loaded with devastating and constant guilt. For this reason, the sufferer must always request specialized help and not allow themselves to drift into isolation or unpleasant mental loops. Treatment for this disorder is as follows:

  • Pharmacological therapy. Medical professionals may prescribe antidepressants in combination with psychological treatment.
  • Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) Therapy. Part of the cognitive-behavioral approach, this therapy is extremely effective in the treatment of OCD. It consists of confronting the sufferer’s thoughts, memories, and images that cause them anxiety. Instead of repressing those ideas, they must make contact with them so as not to fall into a compulsive response/behavior (habituation).

Gradually, the sufferer is guided to accept the fact that, sometimes, certain ideas and memories will appear in their mind that aren’t true. They learn that not everything that their mind produces is necessarily true, nor should it provoke an uncontrollable anxiety response. That’s the key. Fortunately, the therapies for treating this condition have good success rates and can usually give the patient the quality of life they deserve.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Mataix-Cols, D., Rosario-Campos, M. C., & Leckman, J. F. (2005). A multidimensional model of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The American journal of psychiatry162(2), 228–238. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15677583/
  • Taylor S. (2011). Etiology of obsessions and compulsions: a meta-analysis and narrative review of twin studies. Clinical psychology review31(8), 1361–1372. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22024245/
  • Thomasantérion, C., Cadet, L., Dirson, S., & Laurent, B. (2002). Présentations amnésiques des troubles obsessionnels compulsifs [Amnesic presentations of the compulsive obsessional confusions (about 3 patients appearing in a consultation of memory)]. L’Encephale28(2), 154–159. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11972142/
  • Klumpp, H., Amir, N., & Garfinkel, S. N. (2009). False memory and obsessive-compulsive symptoms. Depression and anxiety26(5), 396–402. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18839404/
  • Stein, D. J., Costa, D. L. C., Lochner, C., Miguel, E. C., Reddy, Y. C. J., Shavitt, R. G., van den Heuvel, O. A., & Simpson, H. B. (2019). Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Nature reviews. Disease primers5(1), 52. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7370844/

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.