Google searches relating to panic attacks surged to an all-time high during the first month of the coronavirus pandemic.
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.
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.
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.