Google searches related to anxiety reached record highs in early days of COVID-19
Google searches for anxiety-related terms in the 58 days that followed President Donald J. Trump’s declaration of a national emergency because of COVID-19 reached record highs, researchers wrote in JAMA Internal Medicine.
“Our study begs health leaders to more fully appreciate the collateral consequences of COVID-19 and communication about the pandemic,” John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, associate professor at the University of California at San Diego and epidemiologist at the Center for Behavioral Epidemiology and Community Health, told Healio Primary Care.
Researchers analyzed U.S. Google Trend search volumes for phrases like “anxiety attack,” “panic attack,” “signs of anxiety attack” and “anxiety attack symptoms” — collectively known as acute anxiety — from Jan. 1, 2004, to March 12, 2020, and then from March 13 to May 9. The end date coincided with the last date that data were available before the analysis began.
Ayers and colleagues wrote that cumulative queries during the latter period were 11% (95% CI, 7–14) higher than expected during this time. They wrote that this increase translated to approximately 375,000 more searches than expected, for a total of 3.4 million searches — the highest volume in 16 years.
Also, the largest single-day spike in queries occurred March 28, when there were 52% (95% CI, 27–81) more queries than expected. Over time, the largest increases in queries transpired between March 16 and April 14, when searches were cumulatively 17% (95% CI, 13–22) higher than expected. During this 29-day window, U.S. national physical distancing guidelines were first imposed and extended, the U.S. passed China with the most reported COVID-19 cases, the CDC first recommended using facemasks and the U.S. passed Italy for most COVID-19 deaths, according to researchers. Searches returned to expected levels on April 15, with the number of queries thereafter dropping within expected prediction intervals.
“More recent events and events to come that spread hysteria could have the same collateral effect on the population’s mental health,” Ayers said.
Based on the study’s findings, researchers developed the following recommendations:
- Google search surveillance should continue.
- Mental health providers should better address acute anxiety.
- Greater efforts should be made to give people with acute anxiety the resources they need.
- Google’s OneBox should promote resources for acute anxiety.
Study co-author Mark Dredze, PhD, associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins University, said the value of monitoring search queries extends beyond acute anxiety.
“For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, we first detected spikes in shopping for unproven therapies and shopping for guns using similar methods, and these can be further extended across public and mental health topics,” he said in a press release.