The COVID-19 pandemic has caused anxiety to sky-rocket, if internet searches are anything to go by. Panic attacks are an exaggeration of the body entering “fight or flight” mode – as a person tries to take in more oxygen, their breathing quickens and their body releases hormones like adrenaline which can cause the heart to beat faster and muscles to tense.
A new study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, finds evidence of a record high in potential anxiety or panic attacks based on Google searches. Researchers analyzed search queries that mentioned “panic attack” or “anxiety attack” emerging from the US between January 2004 and May 2020.
These included queries like “am I having a panic attack?,” “signs of anxiety attack” or “anxiety attack symptoms.” After President Donald Trump first declared a national emergency in the U.S. on March 13 this year, the team discovered anxiety related searches reached record highs.
Benjamin Althouse, a principal scientist at the Institute for Disease Modeling, which was involved in the study, says “searches for anxiety and panic attacks were the highest they’ve ever been in over 16 years of historical search data.”
Searches tended to peak when national guidelines were rolled out in the U.S., the team found. The largest increase in queries occurred between March 16 and April 14, coinciding with the roll out of national social distancing guidelines.
This also seemed to occur globally: Google search insights for the UK suggest a similar trend, with searches for “panic attacks” and “anxiety attack symptoms” peaking in March and April respectively, HuffPost UK found.
Psychotherapist and author Joshua Fletcher tells HuffPost UK he saw a spike in anxiety-related queries from clients as a result of COVID-19.
Referrals tended to increase when lockdown measures were lifted, rather than enforced, he says. This, he believes, is because during the initial lockdown our lives were quite simple, but as the rules became blurred and a bit more confusing, people became more anxious as “they didn’t have the rigid guidelines to fall back on.”
In a typical week pre-lockdown he would get around five to 10 enquiries, but in April and May this rose to between 30 and 40 a week. The queries aren’t necessarily linked to the virus itself, Fletcher says, but as a result of the changes people are having to make in their personal lives to accommodate it.
He uses the metaphor of a stress jug: “Every time we experience stress it goes into the jug – so that’s money, work, deadlines, relationship issues, past experiences, grief, debt, lack of sleep, not eating properly.”
People experience panic attacks when that stress jug overflows, he says, because the brain misinterprets all the stress and thinks you’re in danger. Your body goes into fight or flight – and the adrenaline kicks in. With the virus and subsequent lockdown, “so many people’s jugs have been filled up,” he says.
How to tell if you’ve had a panic attack
There are various physical and mental symptoms of a panic attack.
Fletcher talks through three key parts: First of all, there’s the feeling of “terror from nowhere,” he says. All of a sudden you are scared for no real reason and can feel an overwhelming sense of dread that something awful is about to happen.
Secondly, there’s the sensation – you can’t catch your breath, there’s a sense of unreality and feeling detached from yourself. You might also have chest pains, your vision shuts down, you sweat and have an overwhelming urge to run away.
A panic attack is also identifiable by the thoughts that accompany it. “You have a flood of ‘what ifs,’” Fletcher says. These might be: What if I’m about to die? What if I’m about to collapse? What if I’m about to have a heart attack?
Most panic attacks last between five and 20 minutes, but some have been reported to last up to an hour.
If you’re experiencing panic attacks, it helps to identify the things that are currently causing you stress so that you can try to alleviate at least some of them. If you’re having repeated attacks, talk therapy (such as cognitive behavioral therapy) and medicine are the main treatments.
Fletcher urges people who have had more than the occasional panic to seek help as it could be a sign of panic disorder. Your first call should be your primary doctor, but mental health professionals can also offer support. You might also find it helpful to seek out a specialized private therapist.
People who are prone to panic attacks have previously shared with HuffPost how breathing techniques have helped them, particularly those prone to hyper-ventilating. Fletcher, who has experienced panic disorder himself, doesn’t use techniques like breathing exercises because “when you use a technique, you’re telling the anxious brain it’s not ok to be anxious,” he says.
The important thing to do, Fletcher says, is to remember “this feeling will always pass.”
“Compassionately remind yourself it’s OK to be anxious,” he advises.
This post originally appeared in HuffPost UK.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.