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“It’s like stepping into the storm”: How OCD can affect your online life

Compulsive Googling is a common but little-known aspect of many OCD sufferers' lives. 

“I remember the first time I realised that most people stay on the first page of Google. I was shocked.”

What do you do when you want the answer to a question? You might look it up in a book, or text your mum, or ask social media, but more often than not, you just Google it. You do it quickly, phrasing it as a few disjointed words, and click the first or second link to find your answer. Then you click off. On rare occasions, you might scroll to the bottom of the first page of results, but most of us would never click through to the fifth, ninth, or twentieth page. Elizabeth does things differently. “I could get up to page 20 or more,” she tells me over email. “And I somehow assumed other people did this as well.” 

Elizabeth is a middle-aged American woman who used to suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and wishes to be identified only by her first name. OCD is an anxiety disorder characterised by unwanted thoughts (obsessions) that often drive sufferers to carry out repeated actions (compulsions). It is often associated with cleanliness, but although handwashing is a common compulsion, sufferers have a wide variety of routines. Elizabeth calls her particular form of the disorder “need to know” OCD, whereby her compulsion was to “hoard” information about her obsessions, which were primarily to do with her body.

It started when she was eight, when she first became hypersensitive about her health. Aged 20, she was taking the doctor two-page lists of her worries, such as strange moles or stomach aches. As she got older, she spent time in libraries looking up medical symptoms, but then the invention of the internet changed everything.

“In the thick of my OCD, before I got any treatment, I couldn't imagine stopping my searches,” she explains. “When I turned on the computer, I was stepping into the storm.” 

At the turn of the millennium, Elizabeth got a job at a medical library and spent her days compulsively searching the web for her symptoms. At the time, she was glad she didn’t have dial-up at home, as searching quickly began taking over her life. “I go into a zone of deeply ingrained habit and muscle memory, into stiffness in my back, shoulders, neck and hands, and by the time I get off the computer, I am sapped of energy and my anxiety level rebounds back up, as I’d see how much time I lost. I had no real sense of what was going on around me while I searched. I was firmly in my head.”

Although Elizabeth’s experiences have unique elements, she is just one of many people whose OCD affects their online life. Dr Heather Sequeira, a consultant psychologist who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy for OCD, anxiety, and trauma sufferers, tells me that the internet is involved in approximately 40 per cent of her clients’ OCD. “People with all sorts of OCD problems use the internet as a means of compulsive checking or reassurance seeking about their obsessional fears and worries,” she says.

Sequiera explains that for some people, searching the internet or refreshing a page might be one of their compulsions, but for most of the 40 per cent, the internet is an outlet for their obsessions. For example, if a sufferer fears germs, they might seek out every bit of information they can find on the topic. “The pathological doubt and the feeling that one needs to be 100 per cent sure about something is one of the underlying motivations of many types of OCD,” she says. “Whether this be fear of contamination, intrusive thoughts about illness, intrusive thoughts that one has carried out bad actions, etc. So checking the internet is a very common compulsion regardless of the nature of the OCD itself.” As such, people like Elizabeth spend hours at a time searching for every little bit of information about their obsessions. 

It’s important, however, to distinguish these symptoms from internet addiction. Sequeira explains that those with internet addiction obtain pleasure, or an “emotional high” from time spent online, whereas those with OCD might seek a temporary relief from their anxiety and doubts. Sequeira has also encountered sufferers who constantly check their emails, reread the content they write in messages, and recheck their bank balances frequently.

Some sufferers with “magical thinking” OCD believe that if they don't carry out their compulsions, bad things will happen. Offline, this might involve tapping or counting a certain number of times, but some sufferers' compulsions involve the internet. “One of my biggest problems with OCD is my consequences,” wrote one Reddit user on a thread about compulsive Googling. “Not retyping a sentence seven times is going to kill me or give me cancer...”


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Technology is not to blame. Before the internet, some people with OCD would compulsively phone telephone helplines or search library books, and Elizabeth herself says neither the internet nor smartphones are the problem. “All I needed was my mind,” she says. “I'd forget someone's name, and wrack my brain trying to remember it, or dig through all my journals to find it. For years, I would reconstruct conversations and write them verbatim and become frozen in attempting to remember every detail.”

But the accessibility of the internet does exacerbate the problem, with Sequeira noting that searching can get to a level where it is “extremely disabling” for a person.

That is Elizabeth’s experience. Although spending hours at a time on the computer might not sound too different from the way you live your life, the reality is very extreme. Elizabeth wouldn’t do anything without “extensive” research, and was compelled to find the answer to every single question that popped into her head. “I lived in a state of exhaustion within my head, my hand molded to the mouse and my eyes fixated on the screen,” she says. 

“OCD is seductive and says, ‘Just search another minute, or 15 minutes, or until the top of the hour or until you've looked at every single link in a list…’ and before you know it, you are oblivious to your life, and completely in your head.” 

Even the fact Elizabeth chose to email me her answers, rather than speak to me over the phone, is part of this. “My first impulse was to find all my previous writing on the subject of internet OCD, and research my own self, and find the most perfect information to respond with,” she says. 

Eventually, at her lowest point in 2006, Elizabeth sought help. She found a therapist who led her through exposure therapy, a technique used to treat anxiety disorders in which the patient is repeatedly exposed to their fear. Her therapist encouraged her to stop with her searching before she felt “done” and wait out the ensuing wave of anxiety. “One of my therapist mantras is: 'I don't need to know the answer to this right now',”  she says. 

Many sufferers who compulsively Google do so in the hope it will make them feel better – and it might, for a while. On the whole, however, the problem is cyclical, and the urge to seek more and more information can be debilitating. It can be hard for sufferers to seek help for something that provides them comfort, but it is important to recognise the problem for what it is. Elizabeth warns that it is important to learn to live with uncertainty in order to lead a fulfilling life. 

"Google couldn't solve my OCD, because the reassurance I was seeking was a mythical oasis that vanished as soon as I got close,” she says.

For more information about OCD visit www.ocdaction.org.uk or call 0845 390 6232.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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