Check out your internet search history right now. Depending on how much you use your computer or phone for work or other daily tasks—looking up a good restaurant to go to over the weekend, googling why you have a headache, reading a TV show recap—you may visit hundreds of websites each day. It can be truly overwhelming to look at that lengthy list!
Most people leave their search histories untouched and go about their day, only checking it when they need to revisit a site after closing it. Some, however, feel compelled to delete their search history, a habit that can take up a lot of time and cause a lot of anxiety.
If that sounds like you and you’re trying to understand exactly why, there are certain mental health conditions that may push you to comb through, worry about, and delete your search history. Read on to learn if your habit might be the sign of a larger problem, and how you can seek help to gain greater comfort with your internet activity.
Why do you delete your search history?
Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to delete their search history. You could feel guilty, ashamed, or embarrassed about what you’re searching, for example, or fear that others could gain personal information about you from your search activity. What might make one person embarrassed might not make someone else bat an eye, so keep in mind that these feelings are unique to each person.
If you feel as if deleting your search history has become compulsive, then this may point to obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. OCD is a chronic mental health disorder where you experience both obsessions and compulsions, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA).
- Obsessions are unwanted thoughts, images, sensations or urges that cause you distress.
- Compulsions are behaviors, which can be mental or physical, that you do in order to neutralize or alleviate the distress of an obsession, gain certainty/reassurance, or prevent something that you don’t want to happen.
Deleting your search history isn’t always a compulsion (or a sign of OCD), but it can be. “This is something I’ve seen as a compulsion with a lot of different subtypes of OCD,” says Melanie Dideriksen, LPC, CAADC, licensed therapist at NOCD. One particular OCD subtype that this often shows up in is scrupulosity OCD, which is also called moral OCD or sometimes responsibility OCD.
Scrupulosity OCD centers around the core fear of violating one’s religious, moral, or ethical beliefs, and what that violation says about them as a person. This triggers guilt and anxiety surrounding their moral character (for example: being a bad person, an immoral person, or a sinner) that leads to performing compulsions. Keep in mind that people with OCD are no more likely than the general population to commit crimes or do “bad” things—rather, it’s OCD that latches onto this fear.
We’ll dive more into this next.
What are the symptoms of scrupulosity OCD?
Let’s take a look at an example. Maybe you looked at porn or have a fear that you accidentally clicked on a pop-up ad for porn, and so now you feel that it’s necessary to go through your entire search history and delete those links. This can quickly snowball into deleting more searches, folders, or information on your computer. OCD often thrives on “what ifs”: What if I didn’t clear them all? What if someone else got on my computer while I was gone? What if I’m misremembering the sites I visited? With each worry, no matter how far-fetched, OCD creates a strong urge to eliminate uncertainty through compulsions, like checking and deleting your search history.
If this fear is religion-based, after deleting your search history, you may even feel as if you need to perform other, additional rituals to cancel out the purposeful or accidental porn viewing, like repeating certain prayers or reading how you can atone for your sins, explains Dideriksen. “The guilt around this is real, and because of that, there’s this out-of-proportion reaction, which are the compulsions,” she explains.
It’s also important to point out that this type of OCD does not need to be centered around a specific religion. People’s moral systems may involve religion, secular beliefs, and a combination of both. In fact, it’s not unheard of for people who aren’t religious to experience religious obsessions in OCD!
And, of course, this doesn’t have to be about porn, either. You could be listening to a certain type of music, doing some research on murders after watching episodes of Law & Order, or checking innocently on Facebook for a random former classmate you remembered, when suddenly you worry that you’re now guilty of doing something illegal, embarrassing, or that your partner will see your search history and make unfounded assumptions. As a result, you worry that your search history is indicative of your failings as a person, and you feel an intense need to cover your tracks.
While the fear might not even be realistic, you feel as if you need to wipe your search history clean and make sure none of that evidence is on your computer, just in case, Dideriksen says.
This type of OCD can also arise even when you aren’t sure if you searched for or looked at anything inappropriate or potentially embarrassing. What if you typed something incorrect or accidentally suggestive into the search bar and the resulting websites that came up in the search were alarming? Even if you exited out right away, you may still worry that you accidentally clicked on something you shouldn’t. Since you can’t be 100% sure, you go into your search history to check if it’s there. But nothing in our memories is 100% certain—when you don’t find what you’re looking for, you might go through and delete your entire search history just to be safe.
One of the criteria for OCD diagnosis is that the obsessions and compulsions must take up a substantial amount of time in your day—at least one hour. You can see how time-consuming it might be to feel as if you have to go through your search history, delete searches, repeatedly examine your internet activity, or have to erase or reset your phone or computer before logging on.
Ultimately, this can start to become a governing force in your day. “With OCD, there’s always the thought in the back of your mind about what if you missed something in your search history, and you’d better go back to check again. Plus, as you continue to use the internet, the search history builds up again. These deleting rituals or other associated compulsions can take hours and become never-ending, says Dideriksen. And the cruel irony is that the more OCD gets you to check, the more you doubt yourself.
When and how to get help for compulsively deleting your search history
When OCD is the culprit behind the need to delete your search history, Dideriksen says that the best type of treatment is exposure and response prevention therapy, also called ERP. “This is the gold-standard therapy for OCD, as well as many anxiety disorders,” she says.
In ERP, you face the core fears that cause you to compulsively prune your search history head-on—by doing so, they begin to have less of an impact on your life.
A licensed therapist who is specially trained in ERP therapy will help walk you through this process. This partnership is critical, because the process of facing your fear in OCD will bring up a lot of anxiety and distress, and this is something you shouldn’t have to face on your own.
In ERP therapy, you will work to purposefully not delete your search history. “You won’t give into the little OCD voice that asks you ‘what if?’,” says Dideriksen. For example:
- What if your partner/friend uses your computer or phone and sees what you’ve just searched and they break up with you or don’t want to hang out anymore?
- What if a hacker breaks into your computer and goes through your search history, makes it public, and everyone starts to hate you?
- What if a higher power is unhappy with something you searched?
- What if the authorities get into your computer and your search history implicates you in a crime?
To get to the point where you can manage your fears—where you’re not deleting your search history all the time, and those what ifs and worst-case-scenarios begin to dissipate and disappear—you’ll first need to be exposed to things that trigger your compulsions. And once you feel the urge to respond with a compulsion, you’re going to purposefully resist performing it.
Therapists will work with you on the following in a gradual, stepwise fashion, starting with things that raise your anxiety slightly, working up to exposures that cause a great deal of discomfort. ERP will look different for everyone, but here are examples of what you might work on, says Dideriksen:
Commit to not checking: Resist the urge to check your browser history for one hour. Overtime, you will work up to longer durations, such as one day, then one weekend, then one week.
Type something that worries you: The internet is the Wild West, and so you can imagine how anxiety-provoking it can be to type something inappropriate into your search bar. At first, you might just type in a word and then delete it before actually searching. But the next time, you might actually hit “return” and see what results come up.
Also important is that you don’t tell others what you’re doing. “You may want to tell your spouse that you’re typing this weird, scary thing into your browser, but in ERP, you’ll resist sharing this information,” says Dideriksen. That way, you’ll learn to sit with the uncertainty, rather than trying to eliminate it with compulsions.
Now that you’ve been triggered, you will avoid performing other compulsions that are done in a ritualistic way to wipe the slate clean. Things like prayer or confessing, for instance, will be cut out of your routine as you learn to accept the uncomfortable feelings that your exposure exercises bring. Here are a couple other examples:
Temporarily keep your history: For one week, keep your search history intact. Don’t go in and selectively delete. Don’t wipe it clean.
Keep your phone around: If one of your fears is that your partner or someone you’re living with will see your search history, then you may be instructed to leave your phone out in the open where it’s possible that someone could pick it up.
When working on ERP for scrupulosity OCD, know that your therapist will be respectful of your beliefs, says Dideriksen. If you are a faith-based person, ERP can still work for you. The goal is to push boundaries with exposures that will “help you get better from OCD and respect your faith,” she says. “That’s why this is a collaborative effort between the client and therapist.” This can be a tricky line to walk, but a properly trained therapist will know how to do it.
What you can do to find help today
If you feel as if you have to delete your internet search history frequently, or you’ve created rituals, such as repeated prayer, reassurance-seeking, or confessing, to counteract internet activity that causes you anxiety, you may be dealing with a subtype of OCD or a related form of anxiety.
If you come away from this article with anything, let it be hope: your struggles, whether from OCD or anxiety, can be treated with ERP therapy. You can find a licensed therapist who has specialized training, won’t judge you, and can help you take concrete steps toward freeing yourself from worry and fear about your internet activity.
To learn if ERP therapy can help you, please learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based, holistic approach to ERP therapy. With the right help, you don’t need to be ruled by fear and worry.