Memory hoarding and OCD

Do you ever feel the need to remember everything that happens in excruciating detail in case you need to recall the memory in the future and you want to get it right? This fixation, known as memory hoarding, can be a sign of OCD. The need to memorise everything is very different from taking a picture to remember something special in your life that brings you pleasure rather memory hoarding is unpleasant, time-consuming and gives you anxiety as you are so scared of forgetting something important that you start to compulsions such as noting everything in detail or digitally recording and going over everything in details to cement it in your mind. 

I want to talk about memory hoarding today in terms of its connection to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD.) I’ve been working as a psychologist helping people with OCD for 20 years, and although memory hoarding, in my experience, may not be the most common feature of OCD, it is definitely worth taking time to explain in this article, and many of the people reading this article may get some help from it.

Here’s a breakdown of memory hoarding:

  • Compulsive focus: People with memory hoarding dwell on specific memories, mentally replaying them or dissecting every detail to ensure perfect recall.
  • Fear of forgetting: The core concern is forgetting something significant, leading to a distorted belief that perfect memory is crucial.
  • Not normal memory: This isn’t simply cherishing memories. It’s an obsession that causes distress and interferes with daily life.

What is memory hoarding?

Memory hoarding consists of;

  • Obsessions. Where you are worried that you might need to recall (in the future) what is happening right now in the present, and you are worried you might forget details. This fear that you might need to reference this is the future is intense and provokes so much anxiety that you feel the need to ritualise (carry out compulsions.)
  • Compulsions. You feel the urge to document everything. In this digital age, you may take photos, save emails, or keep repeating the event in your head in an attempt to commit it to memory.
  • Fear of losing something important. The driving force behind memory hoarding is the fear of losing a detail that you might need in the future.
  • Not able to throw away or do a digital clearout. due to the fear that you still may need it.

Even though it sounds quite a bit like hoarding disorder, memory hoarding is a little different as it involves the mental retention of experiences as opposed to the clutter that you might be familiar with from TV shows or social media showing hoarding disorder.

What makes a person memory hoard?

Like many other aspects of OCD, people’s memory is due to cognitive distortions, i.e. mistakes in their thinking. Some examples of cognitive distortions would be

  • Believing it would be your fault if something bad happened in the future as you could not remember a specific detail; the distortion is you overestimate your personal responsibility.
  • you overestimate the threat that may or may not occur in the future

Read more about thinking errors and cognitive biases.

How Memory Hoarding Affects Daily Life and Quality of Life

Memory hoarding can significantly impact daily life and quality of life. The time and energy spent on preserving memories can interfere with daily activities.

It can lead to avoidance of situations that might result in new memories to hoard. This can limit social interactions and lead to isolation.

Moreover, the constant preoccupation with past experiences can prevent you from fully engaging in the present. This can affect their ability to enjoy life and form meaningful relationships.

Diagnosing and Treating Memory Hoarding within OCD

Diagnosing memory hoarding within OCD can be challenging. It requires a thorough understanding of the individual’s symptoms and behaviours.

The diagnosis is often based on the presence of compulsive behaviours aimed at preserving memories. It also considers the impact of these behaviours on the individual’s daily life and functioning.

Treatment for memory hoarding within OCD is the same as for all types of OCD; cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT and exposure response prevention (ERP).

Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a common treatment approach for memory hoarding within OCD. It aims to identify and modify the cognitive distortions ( that we spoke about above ) that contribute to the symptoms.

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) is a specific type of CBT. It involves exposing the individual to the feared situation (e.g., forgetting) and preventing the compulsive response (e.g., note-taking).

Over time, this approach can help reduce the anxiety associated with the fear of forgetting. It can also help the individual develop healthier coping strategies.

In conclusion, memory hoarding can be a significant burden for those struggling with OCD. It’s important to remember that treatment options are available. By recognizing the signs and seeking professional help, individuals with memory hoarding can learn to manage their anxieties and live a fuller life.

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