“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…”
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.