Health and Science

Google searches for anxiety soar to record high at beginning of coronavirus pandemic, study finds

Key Points
  • A new study found that people searched for severe anxiety-related information at record highs in March when the coronavirus pandemic was first declared a national emergency.
  • Researchers analyzed Google Trends for terms such as "anxiety" or "panic" in combination with "attack" emerging from the U.S. dating back 16 years, according to the study. 
  • Most of the searches occurred between March 16, shortly after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, and April 14. 
Protesters surround the LA Superior Court to prevent an upcoming wave of evictions and call on Governor Newsom to pass an eviction moratorium, amid the global outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Los Angeles, California, August 20, 2020.
Lucy Nicholson | Reuters

If you turned to Google for help diagnosing an anxiety attack as the coronavirus pandemic swept through the U.S. earlier this year, a new study suggests you weren't alone. 

Researchers from the Qualcomm Institute at the University of California San Diego analyzed Google Trends dating back 16 years and found that people searched for severe anxiety-related information at record highs beginning in March when the coronavirus pandemic was first declared a national emergency.

Researchers looked for searches on "anxiety" or "panic" in combination with "attack," such as "panic attack," "signs of anxiety attack," "anxiety attack symptoms," and so forth, according to the study published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine. 

Anxiety-related searches were roughly 11% higher than usual over the 58 days after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, according to the researchers who worked in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, Barnard College and the Institute for Disease Modeling. There were 3.4 million total searches for anxiety, about 375,000 more than usual, the researchers found.

"In practical terms, over the first 58 days of the COVID-19 pandemic there were an estimated 3.4 million total searches related to severe acute anxiety in the United States. In fact, searches for anxiety and panic attacks were the highest they've ever been in over 16 years of historical search data," Benjamin Althouse, a principal scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling, said in a statement.

Anxiety-related searches spiked around key news events, rising 17% above normal from March 16, when national social distancing guidelines were first imposed, to April 14, a few days after the U.S. passed Italy for the most deaths. Other big news events occurred during that time: Social distancing guidelines were extended on March 20 in the U.S., the U.S. passed China for the most reported cases on March 26 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended using face masks on April 3, the researchers noted.

Researchers found that toward May, when the study concluded its analysis, searches returned to normal levels — a sign that Americans could "have become more resilient to the societal fallout" of the coronavirus, the study said. 

"A panic attack is not to be taken lightly as it can land someone in the emergency room with shortness of breath, a pounding heart, chest pain, and an intense feeling of fear," said Eric Leas, an assistant professor in the UCSD Department of Family Medicine and Public Health and one of the study's coauthors.

The study was funded by UCSD and Bill and Melinda Gates through the Global Good Fund.

(If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide or self harm, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at this link or by calling 1-800-273-TALK. The hotline is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.)

Other studies have started to examine the mental health implications of Covid-19, including a study recently conducted by the CDC that found 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse in late June. The CDC found that nearly a third of respondents experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression in the last 30 days. 

The study, which polled 5,412 people online, found that an alarming 25% of people between 18 and 24 years old reported seriously considering suicide in the 30 days before completing the survey. The worst mental health outcomes were among young people, racial and ethnic minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers, the CDC said. 

Mental health experts warned early on in the nation's response to the outbreak that soaring unemployment rates and strict quarantine orders created a "perfect storm" for an increased risk of suicide for many people. Essential workers carried an especially stressful burden, they said. 

It's important to continue staying connected to other people and engage in activities that maintain emotional well-being, even if it's virtually, health experts suggest. If someone's unemployed, it can be helpful to maintain a daily routine, get enough sleep, have a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

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