Anxiety-related Google searches reached record high in US during early stages of pandemic

  • A new US-based study shows that searches for anxiety-related information sharply increased earlier this year
  • The study's findings are based on search results during the early stages of the pandemic
  • Mental health experts are stressing the importance of addressing these concerns 

There's no doubt that these are frightening times. The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered high levels of anxiety and panic around the world, as people feel powerless while struggling with a variety of emotions. And if you turned to the internet for help with anxiety attacks during this time, you weren’t alone.

A new study has found that Google searches for anxiety soared to a record high at the beginning of the pandemic, and the researchers are advocating for the mental health repercussions during this time to be taken seriously by policy decision-makers.

The research, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, analysed Google search queries from the US containing "panic attack" or "anxiety attack" between January 2004 through May 2020.

The findings indicate that the biggest increases in these searches – ranging from "Am I having a panic attack?", "signs of anxiety attack" and "anxiety attack symptoms" – took place between 16 March and 14 April 2020.

The study was led by researchers from the Center for Data-Driven Health at the Qualcomm Institute at the University of California San Diego, and was done in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, Barnard College, and the Institute for Disease Modeling.

Identifying trends

Since anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the US, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), the research team decided to focus on anxiety attacks. If left untreated, anxiety attacks can also lead to other additional mental health problems such as depression, and are commonly triggered by outside stressors, like e.g. pandemics.

US President Donald Trump declared a national emergency in March 2020 in order to assess the impact of Covid-19. During this time, severe acute anxiety-related searches reached record highs, the researchers wrote. They explain that the increase in searches coincided with the following:

  • National physical distancing guidelines on 16 March
  • The extension of the above on 29 March 
  • The US surpassing China with the most reported cases on 26 March
  • The CDC recommending face masks from 3 April
  • The US surpassing Italy with the largest number of global deaths on 11 April 

It was only by mid-April that search queries returned to typical levels, around the end of the study.

In practical terms, over the first two months of the pandemic, there were an estimated 3.4 million total searches related to severe acute anxiety in the US, said Dr  Benjamin Althouse, a Principal Scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling in a statement. 

"In fact, searches for anxiety and panic attacks were the highest they've ever been in over 16 years of historical search data."

Mental health needs must be prioritised 

The findings warrant a call to action to address mental illness during the pandemic, the researchers said. Study co-author, Dr Eric Leas, who is an Assistant Professor in the UCSD Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, also said:

"The pandemic and our public health response, while warranted based on early evidence, could have many unintended and collateral health impacts. Our results provide among the first insights into understanding those impacts."

Leas stressed that a panic attack is not to be taken lightly, as it can land people in the emergency room with shortness of breath, a pounding heart, and chest pain, among others.

"As a result, our results unquestionably warrant a need for increased mental health services," Leas added.

Targeted resources needed

Another study co-author, Dr Adam Poliak, a Roman Family Teaching and Research Fellow in Computer Science at Barnard College, suggested that it might take many years to fully comprehend the true mental health effects of Covid-19, adding:

"With time, we may find that many more wraparound services will be needed to respond to other collateral impacts, and our rapid data-driven approach could be used for targeting and prioritising responses to those impacts."

Nobles also commented that, in theory, decision-makers could “track searches for hundreds of mental health problems, identify the subset that have the greatest volume, and target resources to meet those needs”.

“As political and policy leaders debate where to spend health resources to address the mental health burdens of Covid-19, timely, empirical evidence like we provide can ensure that limited resources are allocated to the most dire needs," he said.

Implications within a local context

The Covid-19 pandemic and its mental health consequences are not unique to the US. A poll carried out in April showed that the pandemic and national lockdown are having serious negative psychological effects on South Africans.

In a separate Health24 article reporting on SA’s involvement in a global health study on the effects of Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Georgina Spies from Stellenbosch University explained that both lockdown and the pandemic have unintended negative consequences, and that it will have severe short- and long-term impacts on the mental health of the world’s population.

“Currently, billions of people worldwide are either in full or partial lockdown, which has been termed the ‘world’s greatest psychological experiment’, which is predicted to result in a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism,” Spies said at the time.

Local clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Vincenzo Sinisi, provided some steps one can take in order to remain calm, promote connection, and stay safe. However, if your emotions and thoughts interfere with your ability to live a normal life, Sinisi suggested speaking with a mental health professional as soon as possible.

If you're feeling anxious or depressed and feel like you need help, you can reach SADAG on their 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789.

For a suicide emergency, dial 0800 567 567. 

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