Feeling extra anxious these days? Study of online traffic says you’re not alone
Internet searches about acute anxiety were 11 percent higher after pandemic was declared a national emergency
A new study conducted by a UC San Diego research team has found that anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a surge in people seeking help for panic attacks over the past few months.
The study by the university’s Center for Data Driven Health at the Qualcomm Institute was published Aug. 24 in JAMA Internal Medicine and shows that Internet searches about panic attacks were 11 percent higher than would be expected over 58 days, beginning with President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national health emergency on March 13.
Research team leader John Ayers said the spike was an all-time high for searches about acute anxiety and represented about 375,000 more searches than expected. In all, there were 3.4 million searches in that period, with spikes coinciding with specific related events.
The largest spike was a 52 percent increase in searches about panic attacks on March 28 as anxiety grew following the March 16 announcement of national social-distancing guidelines, Ayers said.
Other spikes occurred around the time the U.S. passed China with the most reported cases on March 26 and when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended using face masks on April 3. Another surge happened on April 11 when the U.S. passed Italy for most pandemic-related deaths.
Ayers said studying Internet searches gives real-time information about what people are experiencing and could be more accurate than the anecdotal information that officials often respond to.
Such information could lead to cities creating help lines for people seeking information about panic attacks just as they already have emergency lines for people contemplating suicide, he said.
“There were all these speculations that mental health is declining during COVID-19,” Ayers said. “‘Suicides are up.’ ‘Drug use is up.’ What we needed was to see what the needs of the public are. We looked at one specific case: panic attacks.”
Ayers said acute anxiety is the most common form of mental illness, and his team researched 15 years of searches for terms such as “Am I having a panic attack” and “How to treat a panic attack.”
The paper recommends continuing similar surveillance of queries about panic attacks as the pandemic continues because there may be new incidents that spark acute anxiety.
It also recommends that resource providers pivot services to better address acute anxiety. As an example, the researchers note that Illinois launched a Call4Calm hotline specifically to help people cope with anxiety related to the pandemic.
Finally, they suggest Google include help lines for panic attacks at the top of search results for the subject.
Ayers said giving greater insight to what people are experiencing in a crisis also could be useful to legislators debating which programs to fund.
“It could be the way we’re spending money now is based on randomness and opinion,” he said.
The latest study was the third the researchers had conducted related to the pandemic.
In April, JAMA International Medicine published their paper on a study about a surge in searches for gun purchases during the pandemic.
According to the study, Google searches related to guns reached an unprecedented level, corroborating media reports that gun sales were increasing during the pandemic.
The study found 2.1 million searches about guns over 34 days. The number was about 40 percent higher than spikes that followed the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut and the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Another study published in April by JAMA International Medicine was about a surge in Internet searches about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine after President Trump and entrepreneur Elon Musk endorsed their use as a COVID-19 treatment.
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