Googling habits suggest we are getting a lot more anxious

All graphs are either ratios of one topic or search against another topic or search, or percentages of the maximum level of interest ever achieved in a month for that topic or search. I’ve applied 12 month smoothing.

Edit: As I finished writing this post I became aware that the New York times had done analysis of this topic, although they didn’t do as much comparative analysis between different types of searches.

There has been some suggestion that we are living in increasingly anxious times, and that people feel more anxious now than they do in the past. For example, survey data by the American Psychological Association suggests that people are reporting greater levels of anxiety. However this study relied on self-report comparison of the oneself now to oneself a year ago- a potentially unreliable measure due to the biases of memory. It would thus be nice to complement single-year survey data with other measures, to see if the story of a dramatic increase in anxiety holds up.

While looking at people’s Googling habits cannot tell us anything for certain, I thought it might be an interesting place to start. And indeed, the number of people searching for information about anxiety has increased (more than doubled):

Anxiety searches over time as a percentage of the month of highest ever anxiety topic searches.

But this may not reflect rising anxiety. Let’s consider some alternative hypotheses.

Maybe this just reflects a growing interest in mental illness generally, rather than greater felt anxiety? Or changing patterns in what people are willing to use search engines for? Or just more people searching in general(1)? Comparing rates of searches for anxiety versus depression does not support this hypothesis. Interest in anxiety is growing much faster than interest in depression, showing that this is not just the result of a general increase in search interest for mental illnesses:

The ratio of Anxiety searches over Depression Searches

Perhaps this is simply a result of curiosity about anxiety, rather than symptoms of the disorder? One way to clarify this is to see if the kind of searches one would make if one wanted help with anxiety have risen. Searches for “Anxiety help” have astonishingly more than quintupled, providing evidence that this is reflective of personal problems for which people are seeking help and answers:

Searches for “Anxiety help” as a percentage of the month with the most ever “Anxiety help” searches.

And the ratio of searches for “Anxiety help” to “Depression help” is also massively increasing, again showing that this isn’t just an effect of people increasingly finding their help for mental illness through the internet- if that were the case why the massive change in anxiety v depression help searches? Something anxiety specific is going on:

The ratio of searches for “Anxiety help” over searches for “Depression help”

Meanwhile, in probably related news, searches for ‘feeling guilty’ have quadrupled:

Searches for “Feeling guilty” as a percentage of the month with the highest ever searches for “Feeling guilty”.

There are two obvious possible explanations. Either awareness of anxiety has increased at a rate far outstripping awareness of depression, or anxiety levels are fast rising.

Previous research has shown a long term growth in depression and anxiety, but it hasn’t usually been anything like this dramatic. Data from the MMPI indicates that depression and anxiety have been on the rise in college age persons for a very long time, but the trend is far, far less sharp than that hinted at here.

If the trend is real, we have very good reason to worry about worry itself.

Note: If you think you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder, please seek help. There is a lot psychologists and the medical profession can do to help, even if it feels like they won’t be able to.

— — — — — —

(1) My experience with Google Trends suggests that the trend probably does not simply represent more people Googling in general. Across Google trends, figures seem to be proportional to the total number searching in that period in some way- since I’ve found terms are roughly evenly divided between falling and rising, not what you’d expect if numbers represented an absolute quantity of searches. I’ve been unable to find an explicit statement from Google either way though. Regardless, our depression searches control helps us exclude this possibility. Similar controls like ‘mental disorder’ and ‘mental health’ also reveal a far outstripping interest in anxiety.