Mental Health

Remembering to Forget: OCD and Memory Hoarding

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I remember the first time I heard the idea that you shouldn’t take anything for granted. I figured if I never took anything for granted, then I would never lose the things I loved. All I had to do was hold on to everything and prove that I was appreciating it, right?

As a little girl I started keeping a journal so that I could remember everything. When I would write in it, I felt a lot of pressure to make sure I recorded every single detail (I once wrote out the ENTIRE plot to The Princess Diaries). I couldn’t really pin down the source of the anxiety. I knew that I wasn’t writing every detail of my day because I wanted to, but more because I would feel anxiety if I didn’t. 

What is Memory Hoarding?

OCD sufferers often feel that they must capture everything, from every angle, so that they can later recall exactly what it felt like to be in that room, or talk to that person, or walk down that hallway full of people. The idea that they will look back and have forgotten details (which is actually an inevitable part of life) gives them a lot of anxiety.

Memory hoarding is a mental ritual in OCD in which the sufferer over-attends to memories with the belief that these memories will be needed in the future. The reason often falls into two categories: 

  1. I will need this memory to get me through when my life goes down the tubes OR 
  2. I will need this memory to prevent my life from going down the tubes.  

Common reasons someone might over-attend to memories:

  • To ensure no one was harmed 
  • To ensure no mistakes were made
  • To ensure useful information is remembered
  • To ensure a moment was fully appreciated (a special occasion, a happy moment, a good meal, etc.)
  • To ensure a moment can be mentally revisited later as comfort if something bad happens
  • To later review one’s feelings/desires 
  • To ensure a memory can be marked as a ‘true’ memory in case the mind questions it later

Common compulsions include:

  • Focusing very hard during the present in order to commit it to memory accurately
  • Replaying a moment over and over to lock it into memory
  • Asking others for reassurance that memories are accurate
  • Taking photos or videos so they can be reviewed later to ensure nothing bad happened
  • Taking photos or videos of good times so they can be savored later if something bad happens
  • Taking screen shots of messages, emails, webpages, etc. so they can be easily reviewed later for quick reassurance 
  • Doing something unique or random to ‘mark’ a memory as ‘real’ when it is remembered later
  • Taking excessive notes 

 

But Like…What Are Memories?

The problem with attempting to hoard memories is that memories are not physical things for us to gather and collect. They are not something you can pull out of a drawer and look at, frozen in time. Even photos, videos, and notes cannot capture the feelings associated with them in physical form. They can still be questioned by OCD (Did I write that down correctly? Did I capture all the angles with my camera? Did I stop the recording too soon?). 

Memories are intricate combinations of connected neurons, cells, and synapses which continue to create new combinations of connections every time the memory is recalled. When a memory is created, certain connections form in the brain. Each time you recall the memory, new connections are added or adjusted based on your current mental state, where you are, how you feel about the memory in the current moment, etc. In short, recalling a memory physically changes the memory itself.

Memory Hoarding & OCD Treatment

Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier for someone with OCD to stop hoarding memories. However, it does make the argument for OCD treatment even stronger. Overcoming the urge to engage in memory hoarding means being willing to accept that maybe you will need this memory in the future, but recognizing that the act of trying so hard to hold on to it is impossible and more trouble than it is worth.

Memory hoarding is especially common at the beginning of treatment. Clients sometimes attempt to take extensive notes in sessions. They feel that the information being provided contains the answer to their struggles and if they just get it all down on paper, they will be able to manage their OCD. But in reality, this just pulls attention away from the session. Sure, a few notes jotted down might be useful. But learning to manage OCD usually involves a series of moments where the brain starts to grasp the treatment concepts and then it slips away, over and over, until eventually it becomes integrated. 

Treatment involves accepting that memories will not be accurate, and that they don’t need to be saved or attended to in a special way. Allow them to come and go just like other thoughts. Appreciate them if you feel appreciation and let them go when you feel that pull to hold on to them. 

Memory Hoarding & ERP

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) for memory hoarding might involve putting yourself in situations that bring up the urge to savor the moment or capture it precisely and then not doing compulsions. This means not mentally replaying it, not taking photos/videos, not taking notes, etc. If you really want to do it up ERP-style, you might include something distracting to increase the chances of missing a detail, like playing music or talking.

You might also be mindful to catch yourself mentally reviewing and completing other mental compulsions after the situation has ended. Practice noticing when you are engaging in these mental ruminations, label it as such, and bring your attention back to something happening around you. Notice the discomfort that maybe you missed something or maybe you didn’t get all the details. Notice the stories you are creating around the potential consequences of this and practice choosing to bring your attention away from the past/future, to the present.

 

When Mindfulness Attacks

Mindfulness is a wonderful asset in OCD treatment. It is a great thing to have in your back pocket for when OCD attempts to take you away from the present moment. But what happens when OCD starts wanting you to use mindfulness as a way to hold on to and savor the present moment?

That is when it is useful to use your attentional awareness skills to notice that you are trying to use mindfulness to further OCD’s agenda. Label it as an un-helpful compulsion and bring your attention back to something un-related to the unique-ness of the memory, something like your breathing, or the boring old air conditioner. 

Stop and Smell the Roses… Or Maybe Not

Not taking anything for granted is great advice for people who don’t have OCD. It reminds them to stop and smell the roses, so to speak. But part of managing OCD is accepting that what is good advice for the general population may need to be adjusted for the way your brain works.

As I got older, I learned to stop writing every trivial detail in my journal. Now I simply write the highlights. Sometimes I still feel the urge to write more, take too many photos, or look over my shoulder just a few more times at that perfect sunset to capture it in my mind. But now I recognize it for what it is. I choose to take the risk that maybe I’ll want that memory someday and won’t be able to access it.  

It can be tough to accept all the maybes that OCD throws your way. Maybe everything will be snatched away, and this time next year you will be aching for these memories, this moment. Maybe the act of not savoring it will be the catalyst that makes the universe rip it all away. Maybe that information will be needed and, because you didn’t remember it, your world falls apart. Sure, that wouldn’t be ideal. But spending hours of time fooling yourself into thinking you can accurately save memories isn’t ideal either.  

Take the risk that maybe you can’t rely on the past in order to allow yourself to live in the present and trust that you can handle the future, whatever it brings. 

  • Rebecca Billerio-Riff, LMSW

    Therapist + Intake Coordinator, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Specialties:
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)