effect of ocd on memory

The Effect Of OCD On Memory

If you suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you probably experience lapses in memory on a daily basis. 

You may frequently forget whether you closed all doors and windows before leaving the house or whether you paid at a restaurant. While reading a book, you may feel like you’ve missed something important, so you read a sentence over and over again until it feels “just right.” 

You may even experience false memories, such as causing harm to someone or saying and behaving inappropriately. 

If you’ve experienced anything similar, don’t worry; you’re not crazy. This is simply what OCD does: it makes you doubt yourself— your actions, words, thoughts, and even identity— to no end. 

Indeed, there is an inextricable link between OCD and memory. To understand this relationship, though, you first need to understand what OCD is. 

What is OCD?

The DSM 5 classifies OCD as a chronic mental and behavioral disorder characterized by two overarching symptoms: Obsessions and compulsions. 

Obsessions are constant intrusive thoughts, ideas, mental images, or urges that consume the sufferer’s every waking hour. Likewise, compulsions are repetitive, borderline ritualistic behaviors that temporarily soothe the obsessions. The sufferer can experience a great deal of anxiety, fear, or even guilt if they do not perform these compulsions. 

The more specific symptoms of OCD can differ from person to person. In other words, the subject matter of obsessions and compulsions differs from person to person with OCD. Hence, various subtypes of OCD exist, including: 

• Contamination and washing OCD
• Order and Symmetry OCD
Checking OCD
Relationship OCD
Harm OCD
Scrupulosity or religious OCD
Perinatal OCD

Among these OCD subtypes is false memory OCD. However, false memory is a common symptom of all OCD subtypes. This is because OCD really boils down to severe doubt, including doubts over past events, actions, or words.  

The Relationship Between OCD and Memory

Issues with memory are among the most commonly-cited symptoms of all OCD subtypes. 

There are two kinds of memories: semantic memory and episodic memory. Semantic memory refers to your long-term memory of worldly knowledge that you’ve acquired over time, such as language, concepts, numbers, and general knowledge. 

But OCD is more likely to affect your episodic memory, which is the memory of everyday events. This includes things like what you ate for breakfast, where you parked your car, conversations with people, and so on. This leads to constant checking behaviors and reassurance-seeking associated with all forms of OCD. 

Memory Hoarding and Need-to-Know Behaviors

Often, people with OCD don’t experience memory loss in its conventional sense. Instead, the OCD’s effect on memory has more to do with whether something was done “just right.” 

For example, the sufferer won’t forget where they parked the car after pulling up to work. Instead, they’ll doubt whether they parked it exactly within the lines or accidentally parked in a disabled spot. 

If they can’t hold on to each and every detail, the sufferer can experience a lot of anxiety, distress, and even fear. 

Consequently, people with OCD usually experience a symptom known as “memory hoarding.” Memory hoarding refers to the need to capture the full details of every event. Considering the same car parking example, the sufferer will feel an overwhelming need to remember all landmarks around their car, how many other cars there were in the parking lot, and other information people without OCD typically filter out

False Memory OCD 

Sometimes, OCD-related memory impairments can be so acute that they fall under a separate category of OCD known as false memory OCD. This OCD subtype entails ongoing intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors regarding past events. 

The sufferer may have doubts over what they or other people said or did. Sometimes, they may even create false memories, convincing themselves they did something wrong despite there being no evidence of it. Consequently, they engage in various compulsions and rituals in an attempt to fortify their memory. 

Hence, false memory OCD isn’t about lapses in memory as much as doubting the memory. For example, someone may clearly remember that they locked the front door. But their OCD will make them question how much they can trust this recollection. 

While false memory OCD is considered a standalone subtype, similar doubts over memory occur in all OCD subtypes. 

Some common false memory obsessions include thoughts like: 

• Did I lock all the doors and windows, close all the faucets, and turn off all switches before leaving the house?
• Did I unknowingly say something inappropriate to my friend/coworker/family member?
Did my partner actually consent to have sex with me?
When my friend was speaking, did I accidentally interrupt them?
Did I leave the restaurant without paying?
Did I accidentally hit my sibling while playing?
Did I touch a child inappropriately? I don’t remember it, but what if I got turned on? 

Some common false memory compulsions include: 

• Mentally reviewing past events, words, or actions to ensure you did nothing wrong.
• Seeking reassurance from friends, family, or coworkers about a memory you’re doubting.
Confessing about past events or actions, even when those actions were menial or the events didn’t occur.
Carrying out self-punishment behaviors
Role-playing a past event and recreating the memory to review it. 

If these symptoms sound familiar, you can take this an OCD test to confirm your suspicion. For a proper diagnosis, though, you must go to a professional. 

How OCD Treatment Helps With Memory

The most successful treatment option for OCD is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. It involves efforts to change the way you respond to an intrusive thought by exposing you to various OCD triggers in a safe and controlled environment. 

For example, let’s say you suffer from contamination and washing OCD, making you wash your hands excessively. Your therapist might then ask you to touch something dirty and wash it off. However, the challenge is to wash your hands only once. 

The point of these exercises is to make you more secure about your memory. ERP therapy will make you realize that washing your hands just once is enough and that your memory of doing so is reliable. 


OCD is one of the most debilitating mental disorders because of its far-reaching effects on all aspects of a person’s life. One of these impacts is on the person’s memory. 

To overcome such severe doubts about memory, ERP therapy is the best course of treatment. The end goal isn’t to make your memory stronger but to make you realize that your memory is reliable. 

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