We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. Some are even living in areas where the infection rates continue to get worse and are bracing for what may come next. Many are asking, “when is it going to end?” This is no surprise that even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that pandemics can be stressful. Anxiety and fear about a new disease can take an emotional toll, especially for those already living with an anxiety disorder.
Analyzing internet searches
A new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine reveals that internet searches for acute anxiety spiked during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. John W. Ayers, Ph.D., MA from the University of California. San Diego’s Division of Infectious Diseases and Global Public Health and team analyzed non-identifiable, aggregate, public data to come up with such findings.
They said that there has been a widespread concern that the Covid-19 pandemic could harm people’s mental health, mainly because of the anxiety about the disease as well as its societal fallout. However, traditional population mental health surveillance, including medical records and telephone surveys, is expensive, time-consuming, and could miss some people who do not seek care or participate in the survey. This is why to evaluate the Covid-19-related anxiety that people suffer on a population basis, the researchers relied on internet searches.
Using Google Trends, the team monitored the daily fraction of all internet searches that included the terms of panic or anxiety or a combination with attack. Some keywords highlighted in the search were anxiety attach symptoms, signs of an anxiety attack, and a panic attack that originated from the United States between January 1, 2004, and May 4, 2020.
The team then compared the search volumes after US President Trump declared a national Covid-19 emergency in the country on March 13. This provided the team a periodicity and a historical trend in the data. Corresponding author John W. Ayers, Ph.D., MA said that traditional public health surveillance lacks the agility to provide them on-demand signs. With their approach using Google search queries, though, they saw the increase in queries about anxiety attacks during a pandemic.
The highest search
Institute for Disease Modeling’s Principal Scientist Dr. Benjamin Althouse said that in the first 58 days of the pandemic, there were 3.4 million total searches related to severe acute anxiety in the US alone. Searches for panic attacks and anxiety were also the highest in more than 16 years of historical search data.
The anxiety-related searches increased around key news events, rising 17% above normal when national social distancing guidelines were first imposed in the US to a few days after the US surpassed Italy for the number of deaths. Other key news events that happened were the extension of social distancing protocols, when the US passed China for the number of Covid-19 cases on March 26, and the CDC recommended the use of face masks.
Researchers also found that in May, when they concluded their analysis, the searches related to anxiety and panic attack returned to normal levels. They believe that it’s because the Americans could have already become more resilient to the societal fallout. Yet, Dr. Eric C. Leas, an Assistant Professor in the UCSD Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, told Medical Xpress that a panic attack should not be taken lightly. This is because it could land a person in the emergency room with a pounding heart, chest pain, shortness of breath, and an intense feeling of fear.
Search interest in Google Trends
Google Trends shows that the search interest for the term “anxiety” alone was at 90 from August 25 to 31, 2019 but it increased to 96 on August 16-22, 2020. The Google Trends data is anonymized so no one is personally identified and categorized, which helps determine the topic for a search query. The maximum search interest for the time and location selected is 100.
Other related search topics are “shortness of breath,” “breathing,” “ketamines for anxiety,” “can anxiety cause fever,” and promethazine for anxiety.”
As for the study that appeared in JAMA, co-author Dr. Mark Dredze from the Johns Hopkins University explained that the value of monitoring internet searches goes beyond acute anxiety. For example, they also detected spikes in shopping for guns and shopping for unproven therapies. These findings can further be extended across mental and public health topics, he opined. In another study titled Collateral Crises of Gun Preparation and the COVID-19 Pandemic, authors said that the Google searches related to preparing guns have also surged to unprecedented levels, approximately 40% higher than previously reported. But why is gun purchasing increasing amid the pandemic?
Noah S. Schwartz, a Ph.D. Candidate from the Carleton University, said that gun ownership could be for self-defense following the explosion laws that allowed Americans to carry guns outside the home. Some are concerned about looting and violence as well as their government’s capacity in dealing with the crises. Owners of gun stores likewise said that people are likely panic-buying guns due to fear of shortages rather than fear of violence. Schwartz is not involved in either of the studies mentioned.
ADHD platform ADDitude also surveyed 3,561 individuals and it revealed that the most pervasive and strongest emotion they feel during the coronavirus pandemic is anxiety and not fear, disappointment, fear, or gratitude. Some 68.91% said they are worried or anxious, 67.48% said they feel overwhelmed or exhausted, and 43.30% are sad or depressed. Only 19.04% are optimistic, 37.55% felt a sense of calm acceptance, and 34.09% felt relief at a lack of daily stress. About 37.69% felt lonely, 19.99% panicked, and 23.90% are angry.
The unwelcome change is a common source of stress for adults and children alike, the survey highlights. No one is sure when a vaccination will be available or when the curve will flatten. Anxiety takes root in that bed of uncertainty, the survey the ADDitude published.
The studies and surveys mentioned highlighting the need for increased mental health services not only in the US but worldwide. We must continue to stay connected to other people even if it’s virtually and engage in activities that will maintain our emotional well-being.