Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Internet Searches for 'Anxiety' Soared in First Month of COVID Pandemic

The number of internet searches on Google for information about “anxiety” or “panic” skyrocketed in the period immediately after the declaration of a national emergency in response to COVID-19, according to a research letter published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The number vastly exceeded the expected number of searches based on historical trends.

“Although this study cannot confirm that any search was linked to a specific acute anxiety event or panic attack, it provides evidence of the collateral psychological effects stemming from COVID-19,” wrote lead author John W. Ayers, Ph.D., of the Division of Infectious Disease and Global Health at the University of California and colleagues.

The researchers used Google Trends to analyze the percentage of internet searches that used the terms “anxiety” or “panic” in combination with the term “attack”—such as “panic attack,” “signs of anxiety attack,” or “anxiety attack symptoms”—between March 13, when President Trump declared a national emergency, and May 9. It was the period when physical distancing guidelines were imposed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began urging the use of face masks, and the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States began to surpass that in other countries. 

The researchers compared results with historical trends from January 1, 2004, to March 12, 2020. They found that anxiety-related searches for information increased 11% during the study period compared with the period from 2004 to March 12—translating into approximately 375,000 more searches than expected. The highest spike in acute anxiety queries occurred on March 28, with 52% more queries than expected.

The number of anxiety-related searches returned to expected levels on April 15. In light of the findings, Ayers and colleagues offer three recommendations:

  • Monitoring of these trends should continue as changes during the pandemic may spark new increases in acute anxiety.
  • Communities, states, and health systems should prioritize responses to anxiety during the pandemic. For instance, Illinois launched “Call4Calm,” a hotline to help people cope with acute anxiety related to COVID-19. Such programs could be expanded nationally.
  • Google and other tech companies providing internet search tools should prominently link mental health search results with ways people can access help, such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline.

For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Netflix Drama About Teen Suicide Prompts Related Google Searches.”


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