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A comprehensive guide to False Memory OCD

False Memory OCD is a type of OCD that involves obsessions and compulsions that revolve around past events that either did not occur at all, or did not occur in the way one remembers they did.

This variant of OCD can be especially debilitating when left untreated, since it can create a crippling amount of unwarranted guilt about having done something bad or embarrassing to someone in the past; the main precondition for these thoughts to escalate, is for the sufferer’s memory of an event or set of events to be completely (or at least partially) false, hence the term False Memory OCD.

About 15 to 25 percent of adults have false or distorted memories concerning their childhood; this is perhaps the most common category of memories that people tend to develop False Memory OCD about.

This guide will explore False Memory OCD in detail, including its causes, symptoms, treatment options and more.

What is a false memory?

In the academic literature, there is no agreed-upon definition of what a false memory is; however, in general, a false memory could very simply be defined as any memory that is either partially or fully inaccurate in terms of the event or events being recalled.

One interesting tidbit from a 1997 study is that people are less confident and take a longer amount of time to identify a suspect of a crime in a lineup when they have a false memory of the event (as opposed to a true one).

Some research also shows that false memories tend to have fewer sound-related details and do not include strong emotions as often as true memories do.

What causes a false memory?

According to a modern theory in psychology called the fuzzy trace theory (FTT), false memories are caused people relying on the traces of something called gists, which are very general representations of what the overall meaning of a particular memory is; the opposite of a gist is something called a verbatim memory, which is a detailed memory (for example, it might include specific numbers, words or pictures). In other words, false memories are likely to form from memories that include general feelings of familiarity instead of specific, detailed recollections.

Curiously, people seem to generate more false memories about things they’re very interested in or have some sort of expert knowledge in, according to a 2003 study from the journal “Learning and Individual Differences”.

What is the difference between false memory syndrome and False Memory OCD?

False memory syndrome is defined as “a condition in which a person’s identity and interpersonal relationships are centered around a memory of traumatic experience which is objectively false but in which the person strongly believes […]; it is also noted that the syndrome should not be diagnosed only on the basis of false memories (because everyone has those), but rather by a specific false memory deeply affecting a person’s entire lifestyle and personality.

On the other hand, False Memory OCD must by definition include obsessions and compulsions related to a false memory (or set of different false memories).

In other words – the difference between these two disorders lies mostly in the general absence of obsessive/compulsive behaviors in false memory syndrome (which are present in False Memory OCD).

Examples of False Memory OCD

  • “Did I neglect or harm my child?”
  • “Did I cause that car accident?”
  • “Did I run someone over and kill them?”
  • “Did I assault that person?”
  • “Did I embarrass my family member at a gathering?”
  • “Did I bully that person when I was younger?”
  • “Did I make a scene at the wedding?”
  • “Did I have an affair?”

How can False Memory OCD be treated?

As with many other types of OCD, there are many viable treatment options for the False Memory variant; by far the most effective form of treatment is something called CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy); this type of treatment has no adverse side effects, and is at least 70% effective on its own, according to a meta-analysis of 25 different controlled trials on cognitive behavioral therapy.

A specific type of CBT called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy (sometimes referred to as exposure and ritual prevention) is also known to be very effective, demonstrating an efficacy of about 60% in children and adolescents according to one study, and 50-60% efficacy according to another study.

Another form of CBT known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can also be efficacious, showing at least a 46% response rate after treatment (and after follow-up) according to one clinical trial.

One treatment option also worth looking into is called repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS), which is a type of treatment that about 35% of OCD patients respond to; rTMS is a type of noninvasive treatment that introduces a magnetic pulse in order to stimulate brain activity.

Have a discussion with your therapist about evidence-based treatment

It is important to have a detailed discussion about evidence-based treatments with your therapist, because as some data shows, a lot of therapists don’t always choose the most effective treatment methods for OCD – according to this study, 40% of therapists use relaxation therapy (RT), whereas only 37% use ERP therapy, despite the fact that ERP has been shown to be one of the most effective treatments, whereas RT is not always particularly effective (for example, in one study, only about 20% of children achieved clinical remission with RT).

One reason why a therapist might not want to utilize ERP therapy in particular, is because they fear that they might harm their patient (or that their patient might harm themselves due to temporary distress); it is also sometimes not utilized due to it being seen as too strenuous for both the patient and the therapist.

The criteria for an OCD diagnosis

According to the DSM-V handbook published by the American Psychiatric Association, for someone to be diagnosed with OCD, they must experience a presence of obsessions and/or compulsions, and they must be time-consuming (taking up a minimum of 1 hour per day) and cause significant impairment or distress in social or occupational functioning.

In the DSM-V, obsessive-compulsive disorder is categorized under the “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” class, whereas in the previous version (the DSM-IV), it was categorized as an anxiety disorder. This change was brought on as a result of medical professionals realizing that OCD shares more similarities with things like body dysmorphic disorder and trichotillomania (other disorders in the “Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders” class) than with anxiety disorders.

Talk to other people about False Memory OCD

You can check out our community forum where we specifically have a False Memory OCD category; here you can engage with other people and talk to them about experiences, treatments and so on!

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