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Are Mainers really more anxious?

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz of the New York Times went viral this week by highlighting Google trends that show sharp increases in web searches for issues around anxiety. He identifies two major findings in his research that are strongly correlated to increased anxiety: economic recession and opiate withdrawal.

What’s interesting to note is the regional aspects of his research, which shows that Maine and New England as a whole have the highest rates of folks seeking information on anxiety in the country.

Do we as Mainers need to be concerned or can we just view this as a statistical fluke? I went looking for data to support my concerns. I wish I could say I was surprised:

  1. We know that Maine per capita has been more than disproportionately hard hit by the opiate epidemic.

  2. Maine ranks 3rd in the nation for domestic violence per capita

  3. Rates of poverty are higher in Maine than in most states

  4. Maine ranks very high amongst states in use of alcohol and binge drinking

  5. Many rural areas of our state do not allow easy access to medical and mental health treatment.

Nearly all of these factors are both contributors to and manifestations of anxiety. They support the theory that Mainers may have more anxiety than most. I went looking for other causes and was surprised to find that Maine has more veterans per capita than average.

While I am proud to live in a state that is home to so many vets, I am ashamed to live in a country that does such a poor job supporting veterans and most notably, in recovery from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an especially cruel form of anxiety.

To the layperson, anxiety is usually understood as nervousness and worry. Clinically, it manifests in a number of potentially debilitating forms.

  1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder

  2. Panic Disorder

  3. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

  4. PTSD

  5. Agoraphobia

People who live with anxiety long term tend to experience a lot of gastro-intestinal and muscular problems. I’ve been watching trends for years now on gluten allergies and Chron’s disease and have found that anxiety disorders are extremely common amongst those who struggle with G.I. problems.

Physicians who are knowledgeable about mental health know that anxiety is strongly associated with:

  1. Acid Reflux

  2. Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  3. Ulcers & bleeding ulcers

  4. Gall bladder and pancreas problems

  5. Chronic neck and shoulder pain

  6. Fibromyalgia

Anxiety tends to run in families and yet has no known genetic link. It’s widely agreed amongst clinicians that anxiety is very often a product of learned behavior. How a child learns to cope with negative emotions and stress and what they learn about their worth and role within a family are often determining factors.

Surviving any form of abuse is hugely associated with anxiety, as is growing up in families where alcoholism or other forms of addiction are present. As my friends in recovery say, “What we lived with, we learned. What we learned, we became.” We are products of our environments and when our environments create fear and secrecy, we learn to hide our true selves, emotions and needs.

Depression and anxiety tend to be closely related – very often, if a person lives with one, they live with both. Millions of us have these conditions and a very high percentage of us have learned how to hide in plain sight.

Mainers tend to be stoic, independent people. Many of us mistakenly view asking for help as weakness. A lot of us are terrified to be emotionally vulnerable and to ask for what we need.

I’m certainly biased in saying that mental health counseling can be beneficial to those who live with anxiety so I will stress things that I believe are even better/more important:

  1. Meaningful friendships (yes, we have those folks who are there IF we need them but too many of us fear admitting we need them. We avoid this by saying we don’t want to impose or burden them)

  2. Chosen family/kin/people who love unconditionally

  3. Hugs & Reassurance that we’re ok/it’s going to be ok

  4. Real talks with real sharing and expression of the types of feelings we too often hide/bury within ourselves

  5. Journaling (get that stuff off the hamster wheel and bring it out in the open where you can do something about it)

  6. Yoga, exercise, and martial arts (focus, release, healthy self discipline)

  7. Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Massage therapy, Reiki

  8. Time spent outdoors/connecting with nature

  9. Sex (additional motivation: overcoming anxiety leads to better sex)

  10. Laughter – lots of it

  11. Prayer/Meditation

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