You’ve probably heard of hoarding: an inability to get rid of one’s belongings can actually be a very severe mental health condition, leading to serious consequences in one’s life. For some people with OCD, a very different type of hoarding can make an impact, too: memory hoarding.
Much like someone would collect or hold on to material things, people with OCD can become obsessed with collecting memories or thoughts. They may feel that they will need this information in the future, feeling the need to review events repeatedly in their minds so that they can recall them in detail if they ever need to. It’s a mental compulsion, rooted in the mistaken belief that if one cannot recall something with 100% certainty, it will have devastating effects.
“Over-attending” to certain thoughts or memories
Memory hoarding often begins when a person “over-attends”—or pays too much attention—to a particular individual, thought, or memory in an attempt to preserve it. Imagine that it is your last day of vacation, you are packing up your bags and getting ready to turn in your hotel keys and head home. You do one last sweep of the hotel room to ensure that you haven’t left anything behind. If you don’t have OCD, you are likely to pretty quickly move on, remembering the enjoyable moments that have taken place over the last week and all of the fond memories you will carry along with you. But if you have OCD, you might become “stuck” on the idea of remembering every possible aspect of what happened on your trip. You may worry that you will miss the significance of an event or experience and that you may not have fully enjoyed or appreciated it.
These feelings and concerns can lead to physical compulsions, as well. Common compulsions include excessive note-taking about conversations, events, and experiences, extreme journaling about daily life, or compiling massive collections of digital pictures or other records of people and events. The amount of time and mental suffering this can cause should not be understated; far from a pleasant or enjoyable pastime, digital hoarding can make people dread the idea of forgetting the slightest detail, leading to severe impacts on one’s daily life, relationships, career, or education.
One factor that makes memory hoarding so devastating is that people with OCD tend to have low confidence in their memories generally. And just like anybody else, their memories are not perfect—as soon as a thought or event happens, doubt can start creeping in. And compared to physical hoarding, memory hoarding is a lot more complex. One’s ability to feel sure about retaining memories is not like a cabinet that stores items, so any reassurance one can feel about storing their memories will be short-lived. The more that a person tries to recall events that have taken place, the less sure they can feel about what actually happened. Sometimes, repeated attempts to recall something actually end up changing the memory itself, causing more and more doubt over time.
What are some common reasons people with OCD may try to hold on to memories?
As with many obsessions and compulsions in OCD, people who engage in memory hoarding often have quite a bit of insight into their own behavior, and are very aware of their reasoning. Here are some of the more common reasons that lead people to hoard memories:
- To feel that they fully appreciated the moment or experienced it
- So that they won’t forget what took place, aware that their brain may question what really happened at a later time
- In an attempt to prevent harm from occurring in the future
- So that they can later review exactly what they were feeling
- To avoid anxiety and unpleasant feelings caused by later doubts
What is the treatment for memory hoarding?
OCD doesn’t respond well to logical reasoning—just knowing that memory hoarding is illogical or that it’s impossible to retain perfect memory isn’t enough for people to get better. Instead, treatment for OCD involves learning to accept doubt and uncertainty about one’s memories. By allowing feelings, even difficult or scary ones, to be present, people with OCD can gain freedom from the vicious cycle of memory hoarding, anxiety, and doubt. Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is the gold standard treatment for all forms of OCD, involving direct confrontation with one’s fears while resisting the compulsions, like memory hoarding, that reinforce these fears over time. Through ERP, people who engage in memory hoarding can learn to accept their experiences and memories for what they are, even if they can’t remember them perfectly.
Working alongside someone who understands memory hoarding and the negative impacts it can have on your life is key to recovery. ERP will help you to learn that you don’t have to overanalyze your memories and their meanings. You will learn how to respond differently to the urge to store memories and thoughts. If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information about the treatment, As an OCD specialist, I’ve used ERP to help many people regain their lives from OCD. I encourage you to learn about NOCD’s accessible, evidence-based approach to treatment.