Someone struggling with false memory OCD stares off into the distance.

OCD False Memories May Be Why You Doubt the Past

March 4, 2024

5 min.

An occasional lapse in memory is common, but constantly worrying about how you remember (or don’t remember) past events may be a sign of a mental health condition.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process


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Almost everyone knows the feeling of trying to remember something but being unable to recall the details. This momentary lapse of memory may be frustrating, but for people with a specific subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it can also be incredibly anxiety-inducing. 

Known as false memory OCD, this mental health condition is marked by a lack of confidence in past memories, which creates intense anxiety and feeds obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors. Specifically, people with false memory OCD often fear they’ve done something wrong in the past or can’t determine whether their memory of an event is true or not. 

Living with false memory OCD symptoms can make life feel unmanageable, but treatment is available. Keep reading to learn more about false memory OCD and how to seek help if you think you’re experiencing this mental health condition.

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What is false memory OCD?

OCD encompasses various subtypes, each characterized by distinct obsessions (thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors) that aim to lessen anxiety. For instance, magical thinking OCD is where people believe their words can cause or prevent unrelated events and harm OCD centers on violent intrusive thoughts. 

False memory OCD is one such subtype of OCD involving intrusive thoughts and obsessions about memories the person can’t remember clearly, which makes them doubt the truth of their recollections. People with this subtype of OCD often believe they’ve committed actions that go against their moral code despite lacking evidence to support these fears.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

False memory OCD

A mental health condition marked by recurring, intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and repetitive behaviors (compulsions) aimed at reducing anxiety or perceived harm.

A subtype of OCD involving intrusive thoughts about past events or actions, leading to doubts about the accuracy of their memories and the development of false memories.

For example, a person might experience an intrusive thought that they wronged someone at a past event, even though no evidence supports this memory. This false memory can lead to the development or worsening of an obsession, intense anxiety, and distress, causing the person to engage in rituals or mental compulsions to alleviate the perceived guilt or uncertainty.

Common rituals and compulsions associated with false memory OCD are constant mental review of the past event, persistent checking on different aspects related to the memory in question, or seeking reassurance from others to either disprove or validate the memory of the event. False memory OCD can also lead people to confess to the behavior they are obsessing over that lacks any verifiable truth or basis in reality. 

Factors that worsen false memory OCD 

Navigating false memory OCD involves recognizing triggers that can amplify its impact. At times, people with false memory OCD may experience less intense intrusive thoughts about uncertain past memories, while at other times, these distressing thoughts can be overwhelming. Knowing what triggers false OCD symptoms can help people with this condition manage their mental health. 

Here are some factors that may influence false memory OCD symptom severity and make intrusive thoughts more pronounced:

  • Major life changes or personal crises 
  • Situations lacking clarity 
  • Lack of sleep
  • Social isolation or loneliness 
  • Engaging in rituals to alleviate anxiety that perpetuate the OCD cycle
A woman with orange hair sits and stares into the difference as she struggles with false memory OCD.

Can intrusive thoughts cause false memories?

In short, yes—intrusive thoughts can sometimes lead to false memories, research shows. When someone experiences intrusive thoughts, their brain may try to make sense of them by incorporating them into their memories. This process can create false memories that feel as real and vivid as genuine memories. Essentially, the brain may try to make sense of these intrusive thoughts by creating false memories. 

For instance, when someone has intrusive thoughts about wronging someone, the brain might create false memories to fit with what they fear happened. This is the brain’s attempt to make sense of the thoughts by making them feel like real experiences. So, while intrusive thoughts themselves are not memories, they can influence the creation of false memories due to the brain’s attempts to reconcile and make sense of them.

Treatment for false memory OCD

The treatment for false memory OCD typically involves a combination of therapeutic approaches aimed at addressing the obsessions, reducing anxiety, and breaking the cycle of compulsive behaviors (just like typical OCD treatment). With professional help, symptoms can be improved. Here are some common treatment modalities used for false memory OCD:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

CBT, particularly a specialized form known as exposure and response prevention (ERP), is considered the gold standard for treating false memory OCD. ERP therapy, in the context of OCD therapy, involves gradually exposing individuals to anxiety-provoking thoughts or situations related to false memories while preventing the usual compulsive behavior. This helps individuals learn to tolerate the distress and diminish the power of intrusive thoughts.

Cognitive restructuring

This aspect of cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on challenging and changing the negative thought patterns associated with false memories. By identifying and modifying irrational beliefs, individuals can develop healthier cognitive responses to intrusive thoughts.

Holistic approaches

Complementary approaches, such as mindfulness meditation, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle adjustments, can be beneficial in managing stress and promoting overall mental well-being for those with false memory OCD. 


In some cases, medication may be considered in the treatment of false memory OCD, especially when symptoms are severe or significantly impairing daily functioning. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly prescribed medications that can help alleviate anxiety and obsessive thoughts.

How Charlie Health can help 

If you or a loved one are struggling with false memory OCD, Charlie Health is here to help. Charlie Health’s virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) provides more than once-weekly mental health treatment for dealing with complex mental health conditions, including false memory, OCD, and various other anxiety disorders. Our expert clinicians incorporate evidence-based therapies into individual counseling, family therapy, and group therapy. With this kind of holistic treatment, managing distressing thoughts and compulsive behavior is possible. Fill out the form below or give us a call to start healing today. 

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