Memory Hoarding in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
I was surprised to discover that Webster’s dictionary defines “hoard” as a kind of temporary fence put up around a structure being built, presumably with the intention of protecting it in a fragile state. Dictionary.com had a more familiar definition: “to accumulate for preservation, future use, etc., in a hidden or carefully guarded place.” Both definitions refer to the behavior of creating certainty around an uncertain state.
Squirrels hoard acorns to make sure they don’t starve during the winter. Armies hoard weapons to ensure they never run out. And some people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) hoard objects of uncertain value, usually with the belief that the object’s value may be revealed at an important point in the future. A classic example is the OCD sufferer who won’t throw out old newspapers for fear that he may wish to reference an article at a later date. Some people hoard various items of little or no real value for fear that they may need them some day, or fear that they may not be disposing of these items correctly and could cause unwanted consequences.
Not all people with OCD hoard. In fact, not all hoarders even have OCD. However, many people who suffer from OCD appear to engage in a form of mental compulsion I have come to call memory hoarding.
Memory hoarding is a mental compulsion to over-attend to the details of an event, person, or object in an attempt to mentally store it for safekeeping. This is generally done under the belief that the event, person, or object carries a special significance and will be important to recall exactly as-is at a later date. The memory serves the same function for the mental hoarder that the old newspaper serves for the physical hoarder.
People with memory hoarding OCD exhibit two major errors in information processing. The first error is the distorted belief that they will need this memory someday, and that it would be catastrophic if the memory weren’t 100% accurate. Second, people with memory hoarding also have the distorted belief that memories can be treated the same way as inanimate objects.
The value of a newspaper article can be debated, but the contents of that article will remain constant. A photograph can capture a certain image, and that image will remain constant as long as the material upon which it’s printed holds up. But memories do not obey the same properties.
Not only is a memory a complex amalgam of all of your senses (sight, hearing, smell, and so on), but it is also a function of the emotional state and cognitive processes of the person forming the memory, both at the time the memory is being formed, and when it is being recalled. Therefore the very act of forming or recalling a memory must, by definition, distort it. When you reflect upon an event, you are necessarily filtering the stored data of the initial memory through the present state you are in. So the belief that a memory can be hoarded makes the memory hoarding compulsion a guaranteed disappointment for the individual with OCD.
In general, the clients we have seen who engage in memory hoarding compulsions are concerned that moments in time will pass without them fully understanding, remembering, and appreciating them. The uncertainty surrounding whether or not they will be able to adequately reflect upon and evaluate the significance of specific events, people, or objects causes discomfort which they hope to avoid. Someone without OCD may best understand this concept as akin to that “last look” we all take the moment we leave an apartment from which we just finished moving all the boxes. You stop, you consider that this is the last time you will be this person in this place, and then you move on to the next chapter in life.
Someone with OCD who is engaging in memory hoarding symptoms is likely to feel trapped in a state of never fully being able to take in the true value of this moment. The twisted irony of memory hoarding is that the person trying to perfectly remember things frequently misses out on those very things because they are caught up in the mental compulsion trying not to miss anything. When we don’t allow ourselves to be present in the moment, we are losing a great deal of the value of life in the process.
This irony is consistent throughout the OCD spectrum. The compulsive hand washer scrubs furiously over and over and yet still spends most of their time feeling dirty, no matter how much they wash. The washing actually informs the brain that dirt is on the offensive. The memory hoarder similarly feels a perpetual state of incomplete memory formation, despite all of the time-consuming and emotionally draining work they put into trying to form memories perfectly.
As in other manifestations of OCD, the form may change but the function remains the same. Here are some forms of memory hoarding we have noticed in our clients:
- Over-attending to, and dwelling on, an event of perceived importance while the event is taking place (i.e. a wedding, a graduation, a birth, etc.)
- Over-attending to the details of a significant moment (an important conversation, a kiss, a bite of food, etc.)
- Over-attending to the details of a location and what it feels like to be in it (a room, the inside of a car, etc.)
- Over-attending to memory triggers of significant life periods (i.e. a movie from your childhood, pictures from an earlier relationship, etc.)
- Trying to perfectly remember the physical details of a lover, friend, or family member.
- Mentally replaying an event multiple times to gain certainty that it was remembered correctly.
Treatment for memory hoarding is obviously not going to look the same as treatment for physical hoarding. The goal isn’t to remove memories. Rather, the goal is to be able to accept memories as they are and choose their value willingly, not compulsively. Thus, the practice of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy should be employed in the order of its name.
- Mindfulness – Fully and willingly accept that you have thoughts which appear on the surface to pose a threat to your ability to fully and perfectly form or recall a memory. Recognize that these thoughts are not good or bad, but simply exist. Accept imperfect memories as they are.
- Cognitive (Restructuring) – Identify what distorted ideas you may have about your memories, and what the logical, rational, and evidence-based consequences are of having an imperfect memory of a given event, person, or object.
- Behavioral Therapy (Exposure with Response Prevention) – Intentionally seek out scenarios where you feel the urge to memory hoard, and resist the compulsion by moving through the event without over-attending to any specific detail for a significant amount of time. Leave an event, person, or object without checking to make sure it has been fully understood, remembered, and appreciated. Interrupt mental reviewing with more meaningful, attention-demanding activities.
It’s important to understand the meaning of “over-attend” in this context. One person’s version of savoring the moment in a healthy way could mean getting trapped in an obsessive-compulsive cycle for someone with OCD. The trick is to draw a distinction between enjoying a moment, and mentally seeking reassurance by asking yourself if you are completely enjoying and remembering a moment for sure.
Part of this phenomenon may have to do with an OCD sufferer’s difficulty accepting the permanence of the passing of time. Or perhaps memory hoarding is just another form of trying to do the right thing in the right way 100%. In any case, if the ultimate objective is to value and enjoy experiences in your life, then your best bet is to let those experiences happen without OCD telling you how to enjoy and remember them.
•The OCD Center of Los Angeles is a private, outpatient clinic specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for the treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and related anxiety based conditions. In addition to individual therapy, the center offers six weekly therapy groups, as well as online therapy, telephone therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment. To contact the OCD Center of Los Angeles, click here.
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