Memory is unreliable. You and I might go to the same event but remember it differently. We’d share similarities, of course, but perhaps you remember the lighting whereas I remember the music.
Repressed memories are an ominous-sounding concept. They make me think of the brain as a haunted house—any scary memory could pop out at any moment from behind a corner. There have been several high-profile court cases where the incriminating evidence consists of repressed memories recovered through therapy, but the techniques used to help recover such memories are widely regarded as questionable, at best—much research suggests that the power of suggestion is what primarily leads to “uncovered” memories.
For example, if I asked you if you saw a mutual friend of ours at an event, an image of them being there would flash through your mind. At first, you might know that the answer is no. If I asked you a few months later, though, you might have a more difficult time distinguishing your actual memory from that image that popped in your head. Just like the aforementioned body of research, NOCD’s Chief Clinical Officer, Dr. Patrick McGrath, tells me that the concept of false memories has been proven faulty and even dangerous.
I’ll walk you through repressed memories as they’re known in pop culture as well as within the psychological community, and I’ll go over possible reasons why you may be worried about false memories in your own life, and what you can do.
What are repressed memories and what does the research say about them?
Repressed memories refer to the phenomenon of traumatic, unconsciously repressed memories that can be “uncovered” in a therapeutic setting. Revealing repressed memories in a therapeutic setting is also referred to as “false memory syndrome”—inherent in the definition of the syndrome is that such memories are not real. A Harvard psychology professor once called it, in an interview with the New York Times, “the worst thing to happen to the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”
In 1997, a woman named Nadean Cool won a malpractice lawsuit against her therapist. She alleged that he used various suggestive techniques to convince her that she’d suffered severe abuse and contained multiple personalities. She’d entered therapy seeking treatment for an eating disorder, substance abuse, and depression, but the therapist said that she could only improve through the uncovering of repressed, traumatic memories. For the next five years, Nadean underwent hypnosis, age regression, guided imagery, an exorcism, and a 15-hour therapy session.
Not everyone who experiences “false memory syndrome” comes back from it. Or, at least, not without damage done. The podcast “Shadow of Doubt”, produced by The Australian and investigated by Richard Guilliatt, recounts the story of a woman who recovered memories, in therapy, of intense sexual abuse committed against her by her father. The ensuing allegations destroyed their family, involving a court case and a prison sentence.
Often times false ideas, notions, or theories are developed around kernels of truth. In the case of repressed memories, there are other phenomena that can better explain the way trauma interferes with memory. The three main takeaways from research on what is true about traumatic memories are as follows: memories of trauma are rarely, if ever, truly forgotten; traumatic memories are often vivid, but not “immutable”; and that not thinking about a trauma for an extended period of time is not the same as forgetting it. Psychologists assert that consciously choosing to block out or “forget” a memory does not equate to unconsciously repressing it.
If you feel worried about whether you have repressed memories, there are a few likely explanations. First, because it’s a common topic in true crime and other popular media, your awareness of it may be prompting you to reflect on your own life. Further, if you have experienced trauma in your life that you do remember, perhaps you’re afraid of what you might not remember, wishing to feel more certain about a traumatic event. The third possible explanation is a condition that feeds on doubts about your memory and an intolerance for uncertainty: a theme of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called false memory OCD, also known as real event OCD.
What is false memory/real event OCD?
False memory/real event OCD consists of incessant doubts over the validity of one’s memories. Dr. McGrath says that people suffering from false memory/real event OCD are always wondering Did it actually happen that way? They worry that they’ve done something bad, that they cannot remember things correctly, and tend to feel guilt and shame over what they’re convinced they might have done—their brain tends to leap to the worst-case scenario. They then engage in mental and/or physical compulsions to attempt to gain certainty about their memories.
“None of us can recall absolutely everything about every event,” Dr. McGrath says, except in rare, exceptional cases of people with eidetic memories. For those with false memory/real event OCD, the fact that they can’t remember absolutely everything is highly distressing.
Obsessions in OCD consist of intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, sensations, or urges. False memory/real event OCD obsessions might sound something like this:
- Did I actually say something inappropriate to my friend when we hung out yesterday?
- Did I do something harmful to my little brother when we were little?
- Did the person I hooked up with last week actually consent?
- Did I accidentally steal something?
- Did I touch my nephew inappropriately when I changed his diaper? Am I a pedophile?
- Am I just pretending to be a good person when really I’ve done a lot of bad things?
Compulsions can vary widely from person to person, but common compulsions with false memory/real event OCD may include:
- Mental reviewing. This consists of combing through past events and scenarios over and over to try to remember every detail and look for moments when you might have done something wrong. For example, if you’re worried that you said something inappropriate to a friend the last time you hung out, you might replay the moment you got in her car, the moment you sat down together at the coffee shop, the moment you said goodbye, searching for confirmation that you did or did not say something inappropriate.
- Reassurance-seeking. This can look like verbally asking for reassurance from others, “Hey, did I say something inappropriate to you yesterday?” or seeking reassurance from yourself, thinking I would never say something inappropriate.
- Thought suppression. This is when you try to force yourself not to have a thought. You might repeat to yourself, don’t think that.
- Avoidance. For example, if there is one friend in particular that you’re worried about saying something inappropriate to, you might start avoiding that friend.
What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when one witnesses or directly experiences an intense, negative, emotionally and/or physically painful event. Common examples of trauma include childhood abuse, sexual assault, witnessing a violent death, and other acts of violence, but a wide range of experiences can be traumatic to varying degrees. Losing a loved one in a nonviolent way can be traumatic, for example, or a car accident—or even our recent collective experience of a global pandemic.
Just like the initial incidents that lead to trauma are diverse, so too are the symptoms of trauma. They can include feelings of depression, anxiety, isolation, panic, hypervigilance, hopelessness, trouble concentrating, and memory flashbacks to the incident. They may include physical symptoms, too, such as headaches, stomach aches, dizziness, and muscle tension. Trauma leads to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when symptoms last longer than one month and interfere with one’s daily life at home, work, or in their relationships. Those with PTSD tend to experience avoidance of any reminders of the traumatic event, and they also experience a heightened nervous system in general, often feeling on edge.
The good news is that both trauma/PTSD and false memory OCD are highly treatable conditions. In fact, they often occur at the same time: studies have shown that between 19 and 31 percent of people with PTSD also have OCD.
If you’re spending a significant amount of time feeling worried about whether you have repressed memories, and if the distress of that worry is negatively impacting your life, it’s likely time to seek help. If you think your fear of repressed memories is stemming from the presence of trauma that you do remember, seek out a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment. They can guide you through evidence-based treatment for PTSD, which may include prolonged exposure (PE) therapy. PE guides you to carefully approach the feelings and memories that are related to your trauma, reducing the alarm bells that those feelings and memories have previously set off. Conversely, you should be extremely wary of any therapist who claims to utilize or champion “memory recall.”
If you resonate with what you learned about false memory/real event OCD, the gold-standard treatment for any theme of OCD is exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). ERP you and your therapist working together to gradually expose you to your obsessive triggers—you’ll start small and eventually work your way up to situations that trigger your obsessions the most. Your therapist will give you strategies to practice the second component of ERP: response prevention. This means resisting the urge to perform compulsions. Some examples of exposures for false memory OCD include:
- Writing down the event you’re worried happened and reading it back to yourself out loud. For example, “I may or may not have said something inappropriate to my friend.”
- Going to a place, engaging in an activity, or socializing with a person who triggers your obsessions.
- Reading an article about someone who actually did experience what you’re worried you’ve repressed (sexual abuse, pedophilia, etc.)
Another modality of therapy that has proven to be effective for OCD when used alongside ERP is acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). ACT focuses on accepting one’s reality while identifying and committing to their values. In other words, it guides you toward continuing to live a life in accordance with what’s important to you, even if OCD is present. You learn to accept what you can’t change and commit to changing what is in your control.
If you believe you may be struggling with false memory/real event OCD, schedule a free 15-minute call with the NOCD Care team to learn more about working with a NOCD Therapist. All of NOCD’s licensed therapists specialize in treating OCD and receive intensive training in ERP. In addition, many NOCD Therapists are also specialty-trained in providing Prolonged Exposure therapy (PE) for people who struggle with both OCD and PTSD.
No matter the cause of your worry that you have repressed memories, there are trained clinicians who can help you work through it and assess a course of treatment. If you aren’t sure where the worry is coming from, speak with a licensed mental health professional about your symptoms to reach a diagnosis. And don’t forget to keep in mind what research actually supports on the topic of “repressed memory.”