Google searches for anxiety appear to accurately reflect population-level anxiety, according to new research published in the journal Emotion.

“I am interested in the potential of big data analysis in illuminating the cultural influence on human minds. I think this type of analysis is especially useful to study questions that are difficult to study otherwise,” said study author Takeshi Hamamura, a senior lecturer at Curtin University in Australia.

“One example is the notion of ‘May Disease’ in Japan. The notion is that more Japanese feel anxious in spring due to school and career transitions. Many Japanese are familiar with this notion and it is widely reported by the media each year.”

“However, there is very little research evidence behind this notion. This is probably because a careful test would require a large sample periodically self-reporting anxiety for an extended period of time. Such an analysis is rarely conducted. With Google Trends, data capable of answering this question is publicly available,” Hamamura said.

“We wanted to see whether Google searches on ‘anxiety’ indicate people’s felt anxiety. And we wanted to see whether we could use Google search rate to improve our understanding of anxiety.”

Japan’s government periodically conducts a nationally-representative health survey, which includes a widely used measure of psychological distress and anxiety. For their study, the researchers compared this data to search records from Google Trends.

Hamamura and his colleagues found that the search rate for the Japanese words fuan and shinpai — which roughly correspond to the English word anxiety — was higher in regions where psychological distress was more prevalent. They also found that the search rates increased following a natural disaster.

“We found that anxiety is Googled when and where people are feeling anxious. This evidence supports the use of Google search on anxiety as an indicator of anxiety at the population level,” Hamamura told PsyPost.

After examining data from a 5-year period, the researchers also found evidence for a seasonal trend in searches for anxiety. “We found that anxiety increases in spring in Japan, supporting the ‘May Disease’ notion,” Hamamura said.

“Anxiety is Googled more since 2004 in Japan, but there is no indication of increasing anxiety among Japanese people,” he added.

“We speculate that this divergence between the search rate and self-reported anxiety may reflect a long-term change in how people cope with anxiety (e.g., people are increasingly reliant on the internet in dealing with anxiety and less on traditional sources of support). But this issue needs to be examined further.”

The study, “Anxious? Just Google It: Social Ecological Factors of Internet Search Records on Anxiety“, was authored by Takeshi Hamamura and Christian S. Chan.