Intrusive Memories—What Can I Do?
From getting turned down for the high school prom to spoiling a surprise party to forgetting to put yourself on mute in a video call, we all experience random memories of unpleasant past experiences.
Most of the time, these intrusive memories can easily be shrugged off. However, they aren’t always so easily dismissed. Whether it’s because the memory is especially unpleasant or one has a condition like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) characterized by excessive, intrusive thoughts, intrusive memories can interfere with your ability to function and thrive.
We spoke with Dr. Patrick McGrath, chief clinical officer here at NOCD, to learn more about the nature of intrusive memories, when they are a sign of OCD, what you can do about them, and more.
What Are Intrusive Memories?
Intrusive memories are memories or memory-like experiences of real or imagined past events that are distressing and involuntary. There are several types of intrusive memories which include:
- Memories of mistakes: These are memories of times when you wish you had acted differently (e.g., teasing a friend as a child).
- Memories of stressful events: These are memories of events that caused a lot of anxiety or stress at the time.
- False Memories: These are distorted memories of things that either did not occur at all or not in the way the memory shows.
As Dr. McGrath notes, it’s important to remember that intrusive memories are not just thoughts as “they can also include images and urges, or any other sensory experiences one can imagine.”
Are Intrusive Memories a Sign of OCD?
Intrusive memories can be a sign of OCD, though they don’t have to be. The fact is, everyone experiences intrusive thoughts, memories included. In the vast majority of cases, they are not symptoms of a mental health condition. However, if your intrusive memories result in a great deal of distress, lead to time-consuming compulsions, or interfere with your ability to function, they may indicate that you have OCD.
If I have an Intrusive Memory, Does That Mean It’s Important?
If you’re experiencing intrusive memories, you may wonder what they mean and whether they are significant.
Intrusive memories could indicate a variety of things, many of which are not cause for concern at all. “It could mean you’re human,” shares Dr. McGrath. “How many of us, even without OCD, have thought, ‘hey, did I leave the curling iron plugged in? Did I lock the door? You don’t have to have OCD to have intrusive doubts about your memory in those situations.” In other words, Intrusive memories are a universal and inevitable part of the human experience, so having an intrusive thought may mean nothing more than that you are a normal, healthy human being.
Many memories are about regretted actions, so intrusive memories might be important because they can indicate how you feel about your past behavior. Recognizing this might help you avoid similar mistakes in the future.
They might also mean you are still dealing with an unresolved traumatic experience. If you experienced a traumatic event and now have flashbacks and nightmares, you may have a trauma-related condition such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It’s important to note, however, that intrusive memories aren’t meaningful in the ways individuals with OCD are generally concerned about. For example, they don’t mean that you’re a terrible person and aren’t evidence that you should doubt yourself or what happened in the past. By and large, they are nothing more than normal, harmless experiences that one need not read into or attempt to interpret.
Why Are My Intrusive Memories Always Negative?
You may be wondering why you can’t ever have positive intrusive thoughts. Why is it that you can’t be surprised by spontaneous, positive memories?
One possibility is that it’s a matter of the definition of “intrusive.” According to the Cambridge dictionary, something is intrusive if and only it is “affecting someone in a way that annoys them and makes them feel uncomfortable.” If that’s the correct definition, then intrusive memories are always negative because they wouldn’t count as intrusive if they weren’t.
We might think of intrusive thoughts differently, though, as any memory that involuntarily pops into one’s mind. In that case, intrusive memories could be positive. But even if that were correct, these experiences wouldn’t feel intrusive. “No one would ever stay ‘Wow, I just had these intrusive memories of all the great stuff I’ve ever done,” shares Dr. McGrath, highlighting how our concept of an intrusive memory is such that it has to be unpleasant or distressing. If a memory feels good, it won’t feel intrusive.
Setting definitions aside, we might still wonder whether the memories that pop into our minds are more likely to be negative. Several studies have shown that when it comes to memory, most people display a negativity bias, meaning they are more likely to remember and pay attention to negative experiences. This could suggest that as far as spontaneous, uninvited recollections go, we are more prone to have negative than positive ones.
If I Have Intrusive Memories, Does That Mean They’re Traumatic?
According to the most recent edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), traumatic experiences involve “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.” While these incidents can result in intrusive memories, as they do in individuals with PTSD, not every intrusive memory is about a situation involving violence or death.
With that said, traumatic experiences may be more likely than other unpleasant events to result in intrusive thoughts. This is because the degree to which an event is stressful appears to be correlated with the severity or frequency of intrusive thoughts, and traumatic experiences are incredibly stressful. For example, one study found that in individuals with OCD, the more stressed they felt, the worse the obsessive symptoms tended to be.
As Dr. McGrath notes, we might also be more likely to pay attention to intrusive memories of traumatic events than other kinds of experiences. This may be because these memories are likely to be more unpleasant, which makes them more attention-grabbing.
Is it Possible to Stop Having Intrusive Memories?
While it’s not possible to stop having intrusive memories altogether, there are things you can do to make them less frequent and unpleasant.
#1 Remember, Intrusive Memories are Normal
Reminding yourself that intrusive memories are normal experiences can help you to remember that they likely mean nothing and are not a cause for concern.
#2 Don’t Try to Neutralize Them
Because intrusive memories are uncomfortable, it can be tempting to do something to try to get rid of them and thereby eliminate the stress they are causing. However, doing so will only provide short-term relief.
#3 Accept and Allow Them to Pass
As with all intrusive thoughts, trying to will them away only makes them come back stronger. Accept them as they are and let them pass freely through your mind.
#4 Try out ERP
Depending on your past experiences and your general tendency to experience intrusive thoughts, you might need extra help ensuring intrusive memories don’t interfere with your life. If they are still posing a problem, consider seeing a professional who can walk you through exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, the gold standard for OCD and intrusive thoughts. Here, patients are asked to repeatedly confront the triggers of their intrusive thoughts without engaging in any avoidance behaviors. Over time, this makes the intrusive memories less emotionally distressing. Dr. McGrath shares one of his success stories using ERP for intrusive memories.
I treated someone with this intrusive false memory of hurting his best friend back in high school. He would run through the situation in his head over and over again and beat himself up over it. I made a looped tape of him saying he had done all the things he was worried he had, and I had him listen to it for five hours. Afterward, he said, “I can’t believe this memory ever bothered me as much as it did.” And all I did was have him sit with his intrusive memory and not do anything until he just got bored.
Dr. McGrath is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at NOCD. He is a member of the Scientific and Clinical Advisory Boards of the International OCD Foundation, a Fellow of the Association for Cognitive and Behavioral Therapies, and the author of "The OCD Answer Book" and "Don't Try Harder, Try Different."
NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCDView all therapists
Licensed Therapist, MA
I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.
Licensed Therapist, LCMHC
When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.
Licensed Therapy, LMHC
I've been a licensed counselor since 2013, having run my private practice with a steady influx of OCD cases for several years. Out of all the approaches to OCD treatment that I've used, I find Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to be the most effective. ERP goes beyond other methods and tackles the problem head-on. By using ERP in our sessions, you can look forward to better days ahead.