False Memory OCD: When Obsessions Become Reality in Your Mind (2023)

Although we often feel that we can trust our own versions of events, it’s possible to have false memories. This is common for many people living with OCD.

Do people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have a bad memory? Not necessarily. When we refer to false memories, we mean that some people might “remember” an event differently from how it actually happened.

This challenge may lead them to experience poor memory confidence, meaning they doubt their ability to recollect past events.

OCD can be managed, though, and doing so can help with symptoms of false memory OCD.

A false memory is when you “remember” something that didn’t actually happen. It might be that parts of that recollection are accurate while other parts aren’t, or it might be that the way you remember things is entirely off from what went on.

For example, you might “remember” that you turned on the coffee maker before taking a shower but then find out you didn’t when you come out ready for that cup of coffee.

In some cases, false memories might be more upsetting. It’s possible to have false memories around traumatic events that didn’t happen or to remember traumatic events differently.

False memories might be attributed to mental health conditions like OCD, but not everybody who has false memories lives with a mental health condition, 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 experiencing them.

“False memory OCD” isn’t a separate diagnosis from regular OCD — anyone with OCD might experience false memories.

When you have OCD, you may experience false memories that feel like real experiences. This may lead you to doubt your recollection of important events or your memory performance in general. This lack of confidence, in turn, may lead you to more false memories.

(Video) False Memory OCD - What is looks like!

It’s also possible you may not remember parts of an event and may fill in the gaps with something that you fear happened.

For example, maybe you frequently fear saying something offensive to people at your office. You know you spoke to your boss during the company holiday party, but you can’t remember exactly what you said.

You notice they seem a bit distant today, and you wonder if you said something offensive during that conversation and just can’t remember it.

You can’t stop thinking about last night’s party, going over every detail of the encounter, fearing that you did say horrible things to your boss. You start asking your colleagues about the incident because you’re convinced you said something.

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

These persistent doubts (obsessions) might cause you to constantly check or engage in rituals to relieve the distress they cause you (compulsions).

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

What are the themes in OCD?

Many people with OCD have one or multiple “themes” in their obsessions and compulsions.

An OCD theme is the topic of an obsessive thought.

For example, with the harm OCD theme, you experience distress about the possibility of hurting other people.

With contamination OCD, you might experience significant anxiety about cleanliness, disease, and germs.

With relationship OCD, you’ll have obsessive thoughts relating to your loved ones.

(Video) Memories and False Memories With OCD

With false memory OCD, your obsessions are about past events that you fear happened but have no clear recollection of.

Obsessions in OCD are difficult to shake off or control. The more you experience an intrusive thought, the more real it becomes to you. You start thinking about it from every angle, reviewing every possibility.

For example, you might have obsessive thoughts about saying something hurtful to your partner. You fear that this will happen and that you’ll blurt out something that hurts them.

This obsession might cause you to mentally see yourself saying those hurtful things, even though you don’t want to.

Your imagination might be so clear that, in time, you’re actually not sure whether you did or didn’t say that during your last conversation.

As a result, you might seek constant reassurance from your partner or from others to figure out whether you said something offensive.

Another example: Someone with false memory OCD might have a consensual sexual encounter, but later they may worry that the person they were with didn’t consent.

They might imagine a scenario where the other person didn’t consent in such detail that they become convinced they assaulted that person.

To reassure themselves, the person with OCD might engage in “checking” behaviors or seek reassurance from others to find out what actually happened.

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

No. A cognitive distortion is a common pattern of thinking that’s usually not based on evidence and leads you to see yourself and the world in a more negative way. Think of it as a filter you use over your thoughts that may lead 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 isn’t a pattern of thoughts. It’s actually a recollection of a past event that’s not accurate. In other words, it’s remembering something in a slightly or completely different way than how it really happened.

Some research has suggested that people with OCD present significant neurocognitive impairments from an early age.

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

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

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

(Video) The Carol Felstead Scandal: a true story of false memory | Kevin Felstead | TEDxNewcastleUniversity

Typically, false memories in OCD manifest around existing obsessions.

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

For example, you may experience obsessions about hurting your sister. You fear you’ll hurt her in some way, and this causes you great distress. When you see her come home one day with an arm injury, you can’t remember whether you did something that caused such an injury.

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

Managing false memories in OCD is possible, and it includes all the things you’d do to treat the disorder itself.

(Video) False Memory OCD: Everything You Need To Know

As you learn to manage your symptoms, you might find that your confidence in your memories increases and your obsessions aren’t as potent, resulting in fewer false memories.

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

Talk therapy

The first approach for managing false memory OCD is psychotherapy.

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

ERP for false memory OCD may include resisting the urge to look for validation and reassurance about something you think you did but can’t remember.

For example, if you fear that you’ve walked out of a restaurant without paying, part of the treatment would be to resist the urge to check your bank statements or call the restaurant to ask whether you paid.

Other kinds of therapy may also help with OCD management:

  • acceptance and commitment therapy
  • psychodynamic therapy
  • imaginal exposure


There aren’t any medications specifically prescribed for false memory OCD. However, some people with OCD do benefit from taking certain medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which can help with overlapping symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Self-care tips

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

Self-care strategies for OCD can include:

  • eating a diet based on fresh foods
  • sleeping 8 hours every day
  • getting at least 10 minutes of daily exercise
  • meditating
  • journaling
  • engaging in creative hobbies
  • other stress-management techniques

You might also benefit from accessing OCD resources and joining an OCD support group.

People with OCD might experience false memories, especially in relation to their obsessions.

While false memories can be disconcerting, OCD is manageable. Finding a therapist, increasing your awareness of primary obsessions, and managing stress can also help you.


How do I stop thinking about OCD false memories? ›

The best course of treatment for False Memory OCD, like all types of OCD, is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP is considered the gold standard for OCD treatment and has been found 80% effective. The majority of patients experience results within 12 – 25 sessions.

Can OCD make you think you did something you didn t? ›

Many people with OCD experience extreme guilt. Certain symptoms can trigger this feeling, such as having sexual or violent thoughts or believing that you are responsible for causing harm to others.

What does false memory OCD feel like? ›

False Memory OCD refers to a cluster of OCD presentations wherein the sufferer becomes concerned about a thought that appears to relate to a past event. 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.

Can OCD trick you into thinking you like thoughts? ›

OCD might trick you into thinking these thoughts are directly a result of your own beliefs. When intrusive thoughts come to your mind, you sometimes can't differentiate them from your ordinary thoughts. You usually hear thoughts in your own voice, which makes one believe they are their own.

Can overthinking create false memories? ›

When you have OCD, you may experience false memories that feel like real experiences. This may lead you to doubt your recollection of important events or your memory performance in general. This lack of confidence, in turn, may lead you to more false memories.

Why does my brain keep making false memories? ›

Research suggests people who have a history of trauma, depression, or stress may be more likely to produce false memories. Negative events may produce more false memories than positive or neutral ones.

Why do I convince myself of things that aren't true? ›

Intrusive thoughts or believing things that aren't actually true can happen if you have anxiety. For example, you may be so fearful or worried about something happening, you start believing it absolutely will happen.

How do I stop OCD from ruining my life? ›

25 Tips for Succeeding in Your OCD Treatment
  1. Always expect the unexpected. ...
  2. Be willing to accept risk. ...
  3. Never seek reassurance from yourself or others. ...
  4. Always try hard to agree with all obsessive thoughts — never analyze, question, or argue with them. ...
  5. Don't waste time trying to prevent or not think your thoughts.

What is magical thinking OCD? ›

Magical thinking obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an OCD subtype characterized by ongoing intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors around superstition or magical thinking to prevent negative experiences or harm to oneself or others.

Can false memories feel real? ›

Summary: Neuroscientists say the places a memory is processed in the brain may determine how someone can be absolutely certain of a past event that never occurred.

Why do I think I did something when I didn t? ›

False memories can be a form of obsessive thinking. Someone experiencing false memory OCD may suffer from doubts about their ability to accurately recall events. They may wonder if they did something wrong, even when there's no evidence of that being the case.

Do false memories go away? ›

In a 2021 study, researchers found that entirely erasing false memories is not always possible. When people stop believing a memory is true, the images and narrative remain. This is called a non-believed memory.

How to tell the difference between intrusive thoughts and reality? ›

So remember, if you have a thought that feels bad and repeats in a stuck manner, that is all you need to know to determine that it is an Unwanted Intrusive Thought. Forget about the content. Pay attention to how it acts, and how it feels. Anxiety is a real disorder.

Do people with OCD know their thoughts are irrational? ›

People with these disorders know these thoughts are irrational but are afraid that somehow they might be true. These thoughts and impulses are upsetting, and people may try to ignore or suppress them. Examples of obsessions include: Thoughts about harming or having harmed someone.

Can your mind play tricks on you with OCD? ›

The most common trick is OCD trying to convince you that “this time it is not OCD.” It is important to educate patients how to spot the difference and it's helpful to emphasize that OCD tends to feel like an emergency and needs to be attended to immediately.

Are false memories psychosis? ›

Introduction: Psychotic patients are impaired on recall and recognition of studied items (true memory) and typically make more false recall (intrusions) and false recognition than controls, reflecting greater susceptibility to false memory. The functional mechanisms underlying these deficits are poorly understood.

What mental illness creates false memories? ›

Our review suggests that individuals with PTSD, a history of trauma, or depression are at risk for producing false memories when they are exposed to information that is related to their knowledge base. Memory aberrations are notable characteristics of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

How do false memories appear in your mind? ›

False memories are constructed by combining actual memories with the content of suggestions received from others. During the process, individuals may forget the source of the information. This is a classic example of source confusion, in which the content and the source become dissociated.

What is it called when you make up stories in your head and believing them? ›

Delusional disorder is a type of mental health condition in which a person can't tell what's real from what's imagined. There are many types, including persecutory, jealous and grandiose types. It's treatable with psychotherapy and medication.

Is false memory OCD common? ›

People with OCD are prone to high levels of anxiety and, in turn, distressing false memories. Poor memory confidence is also a common symptom of OCD and leads to constantly questioning memory, actions, and decisions.

Can rumination cause false memories? ›

Rumination showed non-significant trends toward poor recall of studied material, greater false recognition of new negative material, and less awareness of false memories. There were no significant correlations between working memory and depressive symptoms or rumination.

Can your brain trick you into believing something? ›

Visualize what you want.

As Walt Disney said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” Visualizing what you want, setting a mental picture in your mind, and then believing this mental picture can be one of the best ways to trick your brain into believing something.

Why does my brain think things I don't want it to? ›

The two most common diagnoses associated with intrusive thoughts are anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). They can also be a symptom of depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Bipolar Disorder, or Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

How do I stop believing intrusive thoughts? ›

Tips to manage intrusive thoughts
  1. Mindfulness meditation. ...
  2. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) ...
  3. Remember, 'This too shall pass' ...
  4. Visualization techniques. ...
  5. Spend time with a pet. ...
  6. Externalize the thought. ...
  7. Ground yourself in the present. ...
  8. Take a walk in nature.

How do I stop focusing on OCD thoughts? ›

Therapy. Several types of psychotherapy can be used to help someone with OCD manage obsessive thoughts. The most common is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically an approach known as exposure therapy. People with OCD are often treated using an approach called exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP).

How do you overcome OCD rumination? ›

Tips for addressing ruminating thoughts
  1. Distract yourself. When you realize you're starting to ruminate, finding a distraction can break your thought cycle. ...
  2. Plan to take action. ...
  3. Take action. ...
  4. Question your thoughts. ...
  5. Readjust your life's goals. ...
  6. Work on enhancing your self-esteem. ...
  7. Try meditation. ...
  8. Understand your triggers.

How do I stop intrusive false thoughts? ›

Tips to manage intrusive thoughts
  1. Mindfulness meditation. ...
  2. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) ...
  3. Remember, 'This too shall pass' ...
  4. Visualization techniques. ...
  5. Spend time with a pet. ...
  6. Externalize the thought. ...
  7. Ground yourself in the present. ...
  8. Take a walk in nature.

How do I get rid of OCD doubt? ›

Therapy options

One of the most commonly used methods of OCD therapy is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). This therapy aims to address and help you rethink negative behaviors so that they have less control of your life. One of the most successful methods of CBT is exposure and response prevention (ERP).

How do you break OCD thought patterns? ›

To stop obsessive thinking in its tracks, with or without the often-associated compulsive behavior, here's what you can do.
  1. Understand What Obsessive Thinking Is. ...
  2. Recognize the Pattern and Name Them. ...
  3. Accept that Thoughts are Largely Out of Your Control. ...
  4. Explore Meditation and Mindfulness Benefits.
Jun 5, 2018

How do you break an OCD cycle? ›

The best way to put an end to the cycle is to practice exposure and response prevention. This means you “accept” the thoughts, live with the uncertainty, and refrain from engaging in compulsions.

What is the root cause of OCD? ›

Experts aren't sure of the exact cause of OCD. Genetics, brain abnormalities, and the environment are thought to play a role. It often starts in the teens or early adulthood. But, it can also start in childhood.

What mental illness causes rumination? ›

Rumination is one of the co-occurring symptoms found both in anxiety disorders and depression. It is often a primary symptom in Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. When people are depressed, the themes of rumination are typically about being inadequate or worthless.

What medication is good for ruminating thoughts? ›

SSRIs and SNRIs for depression have shown efficacy and would likely help severe rumination.
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)
  • Sertraline (Zoloft)
  • Citalopram (Celexa)
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil)
  • Fluvoxamine (Luvox)
May 26, 2022

How do I stop replaying conversations in my head? ›

How to stop replaying events or conversations in your head
  1. Grounding exercises. ...
  2. Adjust your expectations. ...
  3. Counter your brain. ...
  4. Do a state change. ...
  5. Write it out. ...
  6. Zoom out. ...
  7. Focus on your strengths. ...
  8. Practice mindfulness.


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3. False Memory OCD
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4. Will I Know All These Thoughts Are False After OCD Recovery?
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6. But It Feels So Real! - PURE O, ROCD, HOCD, POCD, HARM OCD, Contamination
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