When intrusive thoughts in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) feature inaccurate memories, you may have false memory OCD. As with other subtypes of OCD, medication and psychotherapy can help treat symptoms related to this theme.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health condition featuring persistent, recurrent thoughts and urges known as obsessions as well as rigidly applied, repetitive behaviors or mental acts called compulsions.

OCD obsessions are intrusive, meaning they’re unwanted and distressing. They typically involve overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Compulsions act as a way of neutralizing the negative emotions of an obsession.

Obsessions in OCD can follow many different themes. When they primarily involve inaccurate or untrue memories, it’s known as false memory OCD.

False memory OCD is referred to as a subtype, or theme, of OCD. It involves primary obsessions related to inaccurate or untrue memories.

The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), does not officially recognize subtypes of OCD. But doctors and mental health professionals use them to add specificity to an OCD diagnosis, based on your main symptoms.

OCD subtypes relate to the primary theme seen in OCD obsessions, such as:

  • contamination
  • sex
  • violence
  • responsibility
  • identity
  • religion
  • symmetry or organization

Although subtypes are ways that OCD can manifest, they remain under the singular diagnosis of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“People with false memory OCD experience unwanted, repeated, distressing thoughts questioning whether their memory for past experiences is accurate,” explains Dr. Jenna Feldman, a licensed clinical psychologist from New York City. “These events can be in the distant or recent past.”

False memory OCD involves intense feelings of doubt, guilt, and uncertainty. The more you think about a past scenario over and over, the more anxious you can feel about remembering it clearly — and the more skewed your recollection of the actual events might become.

False memories in OCD can be inaccurate recollections of the past, or they can be memories that are completely (but unintentionally) made up.

False memory OCD symptoms

False memory OCD is a type of OCD. Its primary symptoms are:

  • Obsessions: Repetitive, intrusive urges, images, or thoughts that cause significant anxiety or distress.
  • Compulsions: Behaviors or mental acts that you feel driven to engage in while following a rigid set of rules to counteract negative emotions from an obsession.

False memory OCD differs from other types in that obsessions are primarily related to doubting thoughts about past events. Compulsions may also take on specific features in this OCD subtype.

In order to find relief from your “this may or may not have happened” thinking and restore confidence in your memories, compulsions in false memory OCD may involve repetitive behaviors and mental acts of:

  • seeking reassurance from others
  • mental reviewing or replaying events
  • revisiting and recreating scenarios
  • confessing
  • self-assurance (“I am a good person. I would never do that.”)

According to the DSM-5-TR, other symptoms that can accompany any OCD diagnosis include:

  • avoidance behaviors of people, places, and things that may trigger obsessions
  • a strong sense of disgust, extreme anxiety, or panic attacks when faced with situations that trigger obsessions
  • a sense of “incompleteness” or uneasiness when performing compulsions

False memory OCD obsessions involve excessive doubt and anxiety about something in your past.

Examples include obsessive thoughts like:

  • Did I leave the stove on?
  • Did I cheat on my partner?
  • Did I forget to pay for my coffee this morning?
  • When my brother fell down, was it because I pushed him?
  • Am I deliberately not remembering clearly?
  • When my friend tripped over my backpack, was it because I wanted to hurt them?
  • Did I say something inappropriate at the party?

Not every recurring doubt or worry about the past is an obsession. It’s natural to review interactions you’ve had and things you’ve done.

Obsessions are uncontrollable and persistent. They cause significant distress and anxiety. Unlike general concerns that eventually go away, obsessions in OCD return frequently and take up considerable time during your day.

The exact prevalence of false memories in OCD is difficult to determine. As a subtype, false memory OCD is less common than others, such as contamination OCD. But that doesn’t mean false memories themselves are infrequent.

Many people have multiple types of OCD obsessions. You can live with contamination OCD, for example, and still have false memory obsessions.

Memory challenges and doubt in memory recall also appear to be common across OCD subtypes.

According to an analysis from 2022, memory challenges are common among people living with OCD, and people with OCD are more likely to be underconfident in their memory recall than they should be.

False memory OCD is one type of OCD. Experts do not fully understand the exact causes of OCD. It’s a condition that may involve a complex mix of genetics, biology, personal experiences, and environmental factors.

The reasons why obsessions take on specific themes in OCD are also unknown, but they’re typically linked to things you place great importance on. The more concern you have about something, the more it might be at the forefront of your thoughts.

OCD obsessions may manifest primarily as false memories because they’re tied to your inner value system, for example.

“There are several beliefs or ways of thinking that may contribute to OCD in general, as well as false memory OCD,” says Feldman. “Specifically, people with false memory OCD have difficulty tolerating uncertainty. In addition, they may have a heightened concern about morality, and the memories in false memory OCD often have to do with morality — did I do this immoral, wrong, or bad thing?”

Psychosis is a psychological state that involves inaccurate perceptions of reality. It can feature delusions, which are false convictions, or beliefs held passionately despite proof they’re untrue.

False memories in OCD may seem to fall under that description, but they aren’t a sign of psychosis.

“A person with psychosis may have delusions, or fixed, false beliefs about past events that are held despite evidence against them,” Feldman says. “A person with delusions about the past is certain that their recollection of the past event is accurate.”

She adds that while people with false memory OCD might have intrusive, unwanted thoughts about past events that might not have happened, the defining difference is they obsessively doubt their memories.

All subtypes of OCD are treated with the same medication and psychotherapy approaches.

Feldman states the gold standard therapy approach for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP), which involves strategically triggering obsessions in a safe setting while resisting the urge to participate in compulsions.

ERP is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a broad, evidence-based therapy framework that focuses on restructuring unhelpful thought and behavior patterns. If you’re not quite ready to engage in ERP, your therapist may offer other CBT alternatives to start out.

In addition to psychotherapy, your OCD treatment plan may involve medications. Antidepressants, typically prescribed for treating depressive disorders, are also prescribed to manage OCD symptoms, due to how they affect neurotransmitters in the brain.

It can take up to 12 weeks to see symptom improvement while taking antidepressants, and most people experience the greatest improvement when combining medications with psychotherapy.

False memory OCD is a subtype of OCD featuring anxiety, uncertainty, and doubt surrounding the validity of your memories. It involves obsessions about skewed or completely untrue past events.

The exact causes of false memory OCD aren’t fully understood, but your personal value system may play a role in how obsessions manifest.

Like all subtypes of OCD, false memory OCD is treated using psychotherapy and medication.