Google searches for anxiety skyrocket amid coronavirus pandemic

Children's Health

Just like physical health, it is important to check one’s mental health amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. When countries announced lockdown orders, many people were confined to their homes, away from family and friends.

The isolation sparked many episodes of anxiety and depression among those confined at home, especially those belonging to high-risk populations, such as the elderly, those who have underlying medical conditions, and those who are immunocompromised.

A new study published in the journal JAMA found that people searching for severe anxiety-related information was at record highs between mid-March and mid-May when the coronavirus pandemic was first declared as a global emergency. During this period, many governments imposed lockdown orders, barring those who have no essential errands to stay at home. Mostly, high-risk populations were not allowed to leave their homes in the hopes of containing the spread of the virus.

Image Credit: Alekseyliss / Shutterstock

Image Credit: Alekseyliss / Shutterstock

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a term used to characterize a normal feeling people have when they are faced with danger, threat, or when they are stressed. When people become anxious, they experience feeling upset, tense, or discomfort.

Feeling anxious is temporary, and when the threat is gone, the anxiety fades away. However, anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, it does not go away and even gets worse over time. The symptoms of anxiety disorders may interfere with a person’s job, school, and relationships.

The common types of anxiety disorders include panic disorder, various phobia-related disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the United States, affecting about 40 million adults who are 18 years old and above, or 18.1 percent of the population each year. Though the condition is highly treatable, only 36.9 percent of patients receive treatment.

Anxiety disorders develop from a complex string of risk factors, such as brain chemistry, personality, genetics, and life events.

The study

The team of researchers at the Department of Medicine, University of California, San Diego, aimed to evaluate the link between COVID-19 with anxiety on a population basis. To arrive at the study findings, the team examined internet searchers indicative of acute anxiety during the early stage of the pandemic, when lockdown orders were imposed.

The researchers analyzed Google Trends and found that people searched for severe anxiety-related information at record highs beginning March. They looked for searches with keywords such as “anxiety” or “panic,” in combination with other terms such as “attack,” including “panic attack,” “anxiety attack symptoms,” and “signs of an anxiety attack,” among others.

The study revealed that anxiety-related searches were about 11 percent higher than usual over the 58 days after a national emergency was declared in the U.S. on March 13. Overall, the team has found 3.4 million total searchers for anxiety, about 375,000 more than the usual numbers.

The team also noted that though there was a sharp increase in anxiety-related searches during the peak of the pandemic, the numbers have since returned to normal levels.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic internet searches indicative of acute anxiety spiked early during the pandemic, but have 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,” the researchers wrote in the paper.

More focus on mental health

In the advent of national health emergencies, like outbreaks and pandemics, it is essential to safeguard the mental health of residents. Even though anxiety has received attention during the pandemic, it has not been studied thoroughly. Further, even if the study cannot confirm a direct link between the pandemic and anxiety, it shows that the situation generates psychological effects.

The researchers recommend that surveillance should continue as changes during the pandemic may produce new increases in acute anxiety, and in some cases, interventions may be needed. Also, they urge service providers to provide interventions for acute anxiety, including providing hotlines for residents who are experiencing panic attacks.

Lastly, the researchers noted that most searches land on websites that do not provide links to a helpline. The team urged the search engine to include life-saving results at the top of the search results, such as suicide and addiction hotlines.

“Time-sensitive decision-making during a pandemic underscores the importance of fostering an agile empirical approach that can continually monitor health threats, including the ability to study an outcome without a prior anticipatory data collection. Mining internet searches may improve strategies to discover and subsequently address the collateral mental health consequences,” the team concluded.

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