Can intrusive thoughts in OCD cause false memories?

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While we often feel like we can trust our own versions of events, it is possible to have false memories. This is common for many people with OCD.

Do people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have poor memory? Not necessarily. When we talk about false memories, we mean that some people can “remember” an event differently than how it actually happened.

This challenge can cause them to have poor confidence in their memory, which means they doubt their ability to remember past events.

However, OCD can be managed and it can help relieve the symptoms of false memory OCD.

A false memory is when you “remember” something that didn’t actually happen. It may be that some parts of this memory are correct while others are not, or it may be that the way you remember things is totally different from what happened.

For example, you might “remember” that you turned on the coffee maker before you showered, but didn’t when you went out ready for that cup of coffee.

In some cases, the false memories can be more upsetting. It is possible to have false memories around traumatic events that did not happen, or to remember traumatic events differently.

False memories can be traced to mental health issues like OCD, but not everyone who has false memories is living with a mental health issue, and not everyone with OCD has false memories.

Although false memories are not a formal symptom of OCD as established in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition, many people with the disorder have reported having experienced it.

“False-memory OCD” is not a separate diagnosis from ordinary OCD – anyone with OCD can have false memories.

When you suffer from OCD, you may have false memories that look like real experiences. This can make you doubt your recollections of important events or your memory performance in general. This lack of confidence, in turn, can lead you to more false memories.

It is also possible that you may not remember parts of an event, and you may be able to fill in the gaps with something that you are worried about happening.

For example, you might often be afraid to say something offensive to people in your office. You know you talked to your boss at the company party, but you can’t remember exactly what you said.

You notice that they seem a little distant today, and you wonder if you said something offensive in this conversation and you just don’t remember it.

You can’t stop thinking about last night’s party, reviewing every detail of the meeting, worrying that you said horrible things to your boss. You start to question your colleagues about the incident because you are convinced that you have said something.

False memories in OCD can manifest as obsessions and vice versa. False memories become recurring, intrusive thoughts which, in turn, increase doubts about what really happened.

These lingering doubts (obsessions) can cause you to constantly check in or engage in rituals to relieve the distress they are causing you (compulsions).

When this happens repeatedly, experts call it a fake OCD memory. This refers to an OCD theme around false memories.

Obsessions with OCD are difficult to eliminate or control. The more you feel an intrusive thought, the more real it becomes to you. You start to think about it from all angles, looking at all the possibilities.

For example, you might have obsessive thoughts about saying something hurtful to your partner. You are worried that this will happen and that you will let go of something that hurts them.

This obsession can cause you to mentally see yourself saying these hurtful things, even if you don’t want to.

Your imagination can be so clear that over time you don’t really know whether or not you said it in your last conversation.

As a result, you might constantly seek reassurance from your partner or others about whether you’ve said something offensive.

Another example: a person with false memory OCD may have consensual sex, but later they may fear that the person they were with has not consented.

They might imagine a scenario where the other person did not consent in such detail that they become convinced that they assaulted that person.

To reassure themselves, the person with OCD may engage in “check-in” behaviors or seek reassurance from others about what really happened.

However, these behaviors – which could be classified as compulsions – rarely bring relief to the person. Often, the person continues to have obsessive thoughts about the event, even after exercising the compulsions.

No. Cognitive distortion is a common way of thinking that is usually not based on evidence and causes you to see yourself and the world in a more negative way. Think of it as a filter that you use on your thoughts that can get you to see things one way or another.

Cognitive distortions are common in people living with or without OCD. In other words, everyone uses them.

A false memory is not a thought pattern. It is actually a memory of a past event that is not accurate. In other words, it’s about remembering something in a slightly or completely different way than how it actually happened.

Some research suggested that people with OCD have significant neurocognitive impairments from a young age.

A small 2018 study published in Psychological Medicine looked at 36 adolescents with OCD and 36 adolescents without OCD. When performing two memory tasks to measure learning and cognitive flexibility, people with OCD showed significant impairments in both learning and memory.

People with OCD also tend to have low confidence in their memories and may be more prone to having false memories.

Research has not established whether OCD is the cause of these impairments or whether these neurocognitive challenges lead to symptoms of OCD. It is possible that underlying factors that contribute to memory problems also lead to OCD.

Typically, the false memories in OCD manifest themselves around existing obsessions.

In other words, the topic of many false memories can be the same as the topic of your obsessions.

For example, you may obsess over hurting your sister. You fear that you will hurt her in some way, and that causes you great distress. When you see her come home one day with an injury to her arm, you can’t remember if you did anything that caused such an injury.

At some point, after repeatedly thinking about your sister’s injury, you might even remember pushing her. This, actually, was an intrusive thought you had a few days ago, but now it feels like a memory of something that actually happened.

Dealing with false memories in OCD is possible, and it includes all of the things you would do to treat the disorder itself.

As you learn to manage your symptoms, you may find that your confidence in your memories increases and your obsessions are not as powerful, resulting in fewer false memories.

There are a few effective treatments for OCD as well as self-care strategies that you can try.

Talk therapy

Psychotherapy is the first approach to dealing with false memory OCD.

In particular, a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy called exposure response prevention (ERP) is particularly effective with OCD. It involves learning to tolerate not to engage in compulsions when you are having your obsessions.

ERP for TOC false memory can include resistance to the urge to seek validation and reassure yourself about something you think you’ve done but don’t remember.

For example, if you’re worried about going out of a restaurant without paying, part of the treatment would be resisting the urge to check your bank statements or call the restaurant to ask if you’ve paid.

Other types of therapy can also help in the management of OCD:

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
  • psychodynamic therapy
  • imaginary exhibition

Medication

There are no medications specifically prescribed for false memory OCD. However, some people with OCD benefit from taking certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which can help relieve overlapping symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Self-care tips

There are many self-care strategies that can help you manage your emotions, avoid situations that induce symptoms of OCD, and improve your self-awareness.

Self-care strategies for OCD may include:

  • eating a diet of fresh foods
  • sleep 8 hours a day
  • at least 10 minutes of exercise per day
  • meditate
  • logging
  • indulge in creative hobbies
  • other stress management techniques

You may also benefit from access to OCD resources and membership in an OCD support group.

People with OCD may experience false memories, especially when it comes to their obsessions.

While false memories can be confusing, OCD is manageable. Finding a therapist, increasing your awareness of primary obsessions, and dealing with stress can also help.


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