The Opium of the People

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, writing in the NYT Sunday Review, looks at what Americans are anxious about, and where Americans are most anxious. His research is based on google searches for such anxiety loaded terms as "panic attack."

Over the past eight years, Google search rates for anxiety have more than doubled. They are higher this year than they have been in any year since Google searches were first tracked in 2004.

So far, 2016 has been tops for searches for driving anxiety, travel anxiety, separation anxiety, anxiety at work, anxiety at school and anxiety at home.

Americans have also become increasingly terrified of the morning. Searches for “anxiety in the morning” have risen threefold over the past decade. But this is nothing compared with the fear of night. Searches for “anxiety at night” have risen ninefold.

Anxiety is higher where people are less educated, but anxiety searches don't appear to be correlated with terrorism, Donald Trump, or Trump's fear mongering. They are related to the state of the economy.

I did find two factors that cause anxiety. The first — and this is hardly a surprise — is a major recession. States that were more deeply affected by the Great Recession saw bigger increases in anxiety during and after the recession. I estimate that each percentage point increase in unemployment is associated with a 1.4 percent increase in anxiety.

The second was not something I had thought about, so let me explain how I even stumbled upon the possibility. Google Correlate is a service that makes data available to researchers so that they can test which searches are most frequently made in the weeks a particular search is made. For example, at certain times of year, when people are searching a lot for “sweaters,” Google Correlate tells us they are also searching for “scarves,” “fleece pajama pants” and “hot cocoa.”

A few weeks ago, I put “panic attack” in Google Correlate, and one of the highest correlated search queries was “opiate withdrawal.” Panic attacks are a known symptom of opiate withdrawal, although looking at the striking correlations here, I wonder if they may be an even more common symptom than we had realized.

The places with high opiate prescription rates — and high search rates for opiate withdrawal — are among the places with the highest search rates for panic attacks. These areas include Appalachia and the South.

During years in which many people complained of opiate withdrawal, many people also complained about panic attacks. Interestingly, searches for opiate withdrawal and panic attack have continued to rise over the past few years, even as opiate prescription rates have finally fallen.

So it appears that opium is still the opium of the people - and it's not really working.


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