Unsurprisingly, the global pandemic spanning just about half of 2020 so far has been stress-y and depress-y times for many of us. So, as any good 2020 shut-in is prone to do, there’s been a whole mess of Dr. Google consulting (and at least some spiraling, we can assume) about how everyone’s brains have been fairing during quarantine.
(Because it needs to be said: While it is a great tool for finding information and coping tools and some basic advice, the Internet is not a replacement for real professional help from a healthcare provider!)
A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine this week found that searches for subjects relating to anxiety and panic (including “panic attack, signs of anxiety attack, anxiety attack symptoms” — off) were up significantly between January and May 2020. Looking at Google Trends and comscore.com in that window, researchers found that searches throughout the early points of the pandemic (when it was declared a national emergency, when masks and social distancing guidelines were encouraged and when the United States passed China in reported cases and passing Italy in reported deaths) spiked.
Using Google Trends (https://trends.google.com/trends) we monitored the daily fraction of all internet searches (thereby adjusting the results for any change in total queries) that included the terms anxiety or panic in combination with attack (including panic attack, signs of anxiety attack, anxiety attack symptoms) that originated from the US from January 1, 2004, through May 4, 2020. Raw search counts were inferred using Comscore estimates (comscore.com).
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“All acute anxiety queries were cumulatively 11% (95% CI, 7%-14%) higher than expected for the 58-day period that started when President Trump first declared a national emergency (March 13, 2020) and ended with the last available date of data (May 9, 2020),” the researchers wrote. “This spike was a new all-time high for acute anxiety searches. In absolute terms this translates to approximately 375 000 more searches than expected for a total of 3.4 million searches. The largest spike in acute anxiety queries occurred on March 28, 2020, with 52% (95% PI, 27%-81%) more queries than expected.”
Researchers said that while the searches spiked early on, they’ve “since returned to typical levels, perhaps because Americans have become more resilient to the societal fallout from COVID-19 or because they had already received whatever benefit they could from searching the Internet.” So, no, the anxiety didn’t magically evaporate and, obviously, the pandemic ain’t over — but, as the researchers write “mining internet searches may improve strategies to discover and subsequently address the collateral mental health consequences of COVID-19.”
“Even though acute anxiety has received substantial rhetorical attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, to our knowledge it has not been subject to scientific inquiry until now. 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, and motivates several data-driven recommendations,” researchers write. “First, surveillance should continue as changes during the pandemic may spark new increases in acute anxiety that necessitate a response. Second, in light of the pandemic, resource providers should better address acute anxiety. For instance, Illinois launched “Call4Calm,” a hotline to help people cope with acute COVID-19 anxiety, and such programs could be expanded nationally.”
They also note that there’s more that can be done to more directly connect people who are struggling with help and resources to prevent harm: “A ‘panic attack’ Google query does not return any links to helplines, even though Google has pioneered the ‘OneBox’ approach to mental health queries, highlighting life-saving results at the top of a user’s search results (including suicide and addiction hotlines) rather than hoping searchers find actionable information by chance alone. The Google OneBox should be expanded to promote resources for acute anxiety, like SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline, to meet potential increased demand during COVID-19 now and in the future.”
The SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline, 1-800-985-5990, is a 24/7, 365-day-a-year, national hotline dedicated to providing immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster.
Before you go, check out our favorite and most affordable mental health apps: