'Panic Attack' Searches Reached All-Time High During Pandemic

A therapist explains how to know if you've experienced one – and what to do now.

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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 analysed 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 US on March 13 this year, the team discovered anxiety related searches reached record highs.

Dr Benjamin Althouse, a principal scientist at the Institute for Disease Modelling, 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 US, 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.

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.

Panic attack searches peaked in the UK in March, 2020.
Panic attack searches peaked in the UK in March, 2020.

Psychotherapist and author Joshua Fletcher, who runs The Panic Room counselling service in Manchester, 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, says Fletcher, 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, which you can find on the NHS website.

Fletcher talks through three key parts to a panic attack. 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’,” says Fletcher. 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?

According to the NHS, most panic attacks last between 5 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, talking therapies (such as cognitive behavioural therapy) and medicine are the main NHS-advised treatments.

Fletcher urges people who have had more than occasional panic to seek help as it could be a sign of panic disorder – your first port of call should be your GP, but mental health charities can also offer support. You might also find it helpful to seek out a specialised 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.

Covid-19 is more than a news story – it has changed every aspect of life in the UK. We are following how Britain is experiencing this crisis, the different stages of collective emotion, reaction and resilience. You can tell us how you are feeling and find further advice and resources here.

Useful websites and helplines

Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.

Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).

CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.

The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email help@themix.org.uk

Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.