Americans’ anxiety peaked early in pandemic, according to analysis

During first months of the coronavirus, there were more than 3 million internet searches for anxiety attacks, panic attacks and similar terms

The potential for infection from the coronavirus is not the only health impact. The pandemic has created stress and anxiety around the world and here in the Miami Valley. Experts do have advice to help.

The coronavirus freaked people out in its early weeks.

Researchers at the Qualcomm Institute’s Center for Data Driven Health at the University of California San Diego now know how much. The group examined internet searches related to acute anxiety during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Acute anxiety, including colloquially called anxiety attacks or panic attacks, was monitored because of its higher prevalence relative to other mental health problems,” the group wrote in a paper published Monday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Using Google Trends, the researchers monitored the daily fraction of all internet searches that included the terms “anxiety “or “panic” in combination with “attack” (including panic attack, signs of anxiety attack, anxiety attack symptoms) that originated from the United States from January 1, 2004, through May 4, 2020.

“All acute anxiety queries were cumulatively 11% (95% CI, 7%-14%) higher than expected for the 58-day period that started when President Trump first declared a national emergency (March 13, 2020) and ended with the last available date of data (May 9, 2020),” the researchers wrote. “This spike was a new all-time high for acute anxiety searches. In absolute terms this translates to approximately 375,000 more searches than expected for a total of 3.4 million searches.”

The largest increase in acute anxiety queries occurred March 28, 2020, with 52% more queries than expected during normal times. On that date, the U.S. passed 2,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Two other spikes occurred March 16, when social distancing guidelines were first put in place, and March 29, when those guidelines were extended.

Increases were also seen April 3, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recommended wearing face masks, and April 11, when the U.S. passed Italy for most deaths from COVID-19.

The group found queries began to return to normal levels on April 15 and have remained at expected 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,” they wrote.