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 in JAMA Internal Medicine and shows that internet searches about panic attacks were 11% 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. The largest spike was a 52% 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.
“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.”
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.
Ayers said giving greater insight to what people are experiencing in a crisis also could be useful to legislators debating which programs to fund.
The 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% 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 by JAMA International Medicine was about a surge in internet searches about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine after Trump and Elon Musk endorsed their use as a COVID-19 treatment.