06:12 GMT20 September 2020
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    Search terms such as "what is crippling anxiety" increased by 800 per cent via Google amid the exam results fiasco in the UK, according to research conducted by a health management firm. If left unchecked, anxiety and stress can have a serious impact on the mental and physical health of students, a long-time health access advocate tells Sputnik.

    Google search witnessed an explosion in terms centred around 'coping with rejection' and 'crippling anxiety' amid the UK's A-level fiasco whereby 40 per cent of students saw their grades significantly downgraded by an algorithm, at a time when COVID-19 prevented them from sitting their exams. Although the British government ultimately reversed its position by granting students their predicted A-level and GCSE results, the damage was already done, according to research from myGP.

    Louise Kitchingham is communications manager at healthcare management myGP and she explains the significance of the substantial rise in anxiety-related search terms at a time when Britain is in the midst of the deepest recession ever recorded. The myGP app, developed by UK healthcare technology company iPlato, seeks to simplify access to healthcare and improve GP services, as part of a long-standing partnership with the NHS.

    Sputnik: Explain the key findings of your recent investigation into anxiety and stress exhibited during the recent exam period in the UK.  

    Louise Kitchingham: We looked at Google Trend data, which analyses the popularity of top search queries online, to find out what people were searching for from the period 12th August to 19th August, with A-level results day being on the 13th August—when many A-level students received marked-down grades that were significantly lower than what they expected.  

    According to Google Trends, searches for 'stress relief balls' had increased by 800 per cent, 'what is crippling anxiety' increased by 800 per cent, 'how to cope with rejection' by 250 per cent, 'how to cope with anxiety attacks' by 190 per cent, 'can stress cause mouth ulcers' by 150 per cent, and 'therapy for anxiety' by 60 per cent.  

    It isn't surprising that searches for these terms skyrocketed, with stress balls relieving tension through simple and repetitive movements. Ever wondered why children are obsessed with slime and sticky toys that feel funny? Stress expert David Posen says that stress can be channelled towards a physical object, leaving you less tense from squeezing and releasing, which may explain why young adults are perhaps turning towards sensory forms of stress relief to soothe their worries, particularly with something so out of their control. 

    Sputnik: To what extent can these results really be linked to stress over exam results in the UK? 

    Louise Kitchingham: Google Trend data provides an insight into what people are thinking about and searching for. Such a sharp spike during this period suggests that a proportion of the population were feeling incredibly stressed in this week. For example, when we look at searches for 'stress relief balls', 'what is crippling anxiety', and 'how to cope with rejection', from 2nd February to 9th February—before lockdown—there isn't even enough data on Google to provide insight! With 800 per cent increases in searches, it is certainly indicative that this event caused immense stress to students.  

    Sputnik: Is this really any different from exam periods in previous years?  

    Louise Kitchingham: There is a significant difference from exam periods in previous years. Searches last year from July 2019 to August 2019 decreased 53 per cent during the period 23rd July – 19th August for 'stress relief balls', 'how to cope with rejection' increased 18 per cent, 'can stress cause mouth ulcers' increased 19 per cent, and 'what is crippling anxiety' by 20 per cent. 

    Sputnik: What are the consequences for the physical and mental health of younger people if their anxiety genuinely exceeds normal levels?  

    Louise Kitchingham: When stress and anxiety is chronic and exceeds normal levels, almost all of your body's functions are disrupted. For example, your immune system can be suppressed, which can make you susceptible to illnesses and cause your body to take longer to heal from wounds. Your appetite and reproductive system can also be affected, resulting in fluctuating eating patterns. In extreme cases, your synapse regulation can be disrupted, causing individuals to avoid social situations and interactions with others. 

    Sputnik: Is there any evidence of increased substance use or abuse during this period too? 

    Louise Kitchingham: Substance use was not investigated within the parameters of this study, and, is something myGP don't feel, as a health technology provider, can comment on. 

    Sputnik: Why do you think these findings are important for the wider public to be aware of? 

    Louise Kitchingham: Mental health in exam students is an extremely serious issue, with reports from 2017 finding that 43 per cent of the 145 suicides among those under the age of 20 from 2014-15 were experiencing academic pressures. Further to this, 32 per cent—one in three—committed suicide before and during exam season as well as the period building up to results day. 

    It's important to recognise the mental strain that education can have on students, particularly when their future relies on what grades they get. Raising awareness of the impact that the stress of education can have on students can help both educational institutions, teachers, parents, and even students themselves to identify when they may need support and if they're struggling.

    Sputnik: Can anything be done to rectify the situation? Are there any policy proposals that you would recommend?  

    Louise Kitchingham: Every school should be encouraged to create a mental health support system with a designated leader to help students who need help. Each region has its own NHS funded talking therapies service—free to access—and you can either access these through your GP or via a self-referral. Many schools and universities also have mental health support for those who are feeling stressed or anxious. Under the Long Term Plan, the NHS has vowed to invest £2.3 billion into its mental health services in England.  

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.

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