The discovery has raised fears that the Covid-19 pandemic could trigger a mental health crisis and that the true scope of the issue could be enormous.
Researchers focused on US-based Google search queries from 2004 to May 9, 2020 to monitor signs of anxiety in the general public.
After March 13, when Donald Trump declared a national emergency, severe acute anxiety-related searches reached record highs.
The largest increases in queries occurred between March 16 and April 14, cumulatively increasing 17 per cent, the data reveals.
Google searches related to panic attacks surged to all-time highs during the coronavirus pandemic. The discovery has raised fears that the Covid-19 pandemic could trigger a mental health crisis (stock)
Pictured left, a graph showing the amount of queries per ten million related to acute anxiety. Pictured right, the amount of searches compared to the expected average level as illustrated by the 0 line
These include queries like ‘am I having a panic attack?,’ ‘signs of anxiety attack’ and ‘anxiety attack symptoms.’
The team from University of California San Diego (UCSD) decided to study anxiety attacks as it can often be a common symptom of mental health.
However, on their own merit, a panic attack can be very dangerous and lead to shortness of breath, a pounding heart, chest pain, and an intense feeling of fear.
The increases in Google searches between March 16 and April 14 coincided with several grim landmarks which increased stress among the public.
For example, the roll out of national social distancing guidelines (March 16th), the US surpassing China with the most reported cases (March 26th), the recommendation of facemasks (April 3rd), and the US surpassing Italy for most deaths (April 11th).
Queries returned to typical levels by April 15 through the end of the study.
The team from University of California San Diego (UCSD) studied anxiety attacks as it can often be a common symptom of mental health. The largest increases in queries occured between March 16 and April 14, cumulatively increasing 17 per cent (stock)
On their own merit, a panic attack can be very dangerous and lead to shortness of breath, a pounding heart, chest pain, and an intense feeling of fear.
Dr Benjamin Althouse, a Principal Scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling, said: ‘In practical terms, over the first 58 days of the COVID-19 pandemic there were an estimated 3.4 million total searches related to severe acute anxiety in the United States.
‘In fact, searches for anxiety and panic attacks were the highest they’ve ever been in over 16 years of historical search data. ‘
The researchers say the findings indicate that now, more than ever, there is a need for improved mental health services.
One example they point to is the Call4Calm hotline in Illinois that supports those suffering with acute anxiety.
Co-author Dr. Derek Johnson, a Research Fellow in the UCSD Department of Medicine, said: ‘Similar hotlines should be rolled out nationally and prominently featured in the search results of those seeking help online.
‘Similar applications to suicide have had tremendous benefits on public health and saved lives.’
Co-author Professor Mark Dredze, of Johns Hopkins University, said: ‘The value of monitoring queries goes 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.’
Findings are published in the journal JAMA internal medicine.
WHAT IS A PANIC ATTACK?
Panic attacks are a form of anxiety that occur when the body overreacts to danger, stress or excitement.
There is often no obvious trigger but many find wide open spaces set them off.
Symptoms can come on very quickly and include:
- A pounding or racing heartbeat
- Feeling faint, dizzy or light headed
- Being very hot or cold
- Sweating, trembling or shaking
- Abdominal or chest pain
- Struggling to breathe or feeling like you are choking
- Feeling like your legs have turned to jelly
- Feeling disconnected from your body or surroundings
During an episode, sufferers may be afraid they are going to lose control, faint, have a heart attack or even die.
These usually last for between five and 20 minutes.
To help them cope, sufferers should focus on slowing their breathing by inhaling and exhaling while counting to five.
Stamping their feet on the spot helps some control their breathing.
While focusing on their senses, such as a taste or texture, may also be beneficial.
After a panic attack, sufferers should rest and tell someone they trust who can then be aware of the signs another episode may be coming.