Why Are People in Seattle So Anxious?

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
A photograph of Seattle's gum wall.
© Misha Dumov / Stocksy United

Seattle is known for our coffee, proximity to nature, rainy days and now...anxiety?  

According to a recent census survey, adults of all ages in Seattle are more anxious than ever, making our city the most anxious major metro in the U.S.

Why are Seattleites so anxious? 

There are many reasons, both proven and anecdotal, that suggest why Seattleites deal with high levels of anxiety. Let’s start with the proven ones.  

We all know Seattle housing and rent prices are high. Inflation and the pandemic have only made it harder for people to afford living here. In September 2021, 60,000 people were having trouble paying rent. 

There’s also our weather, which is gray and gloomy for much of the year. While this is tied to mental health problems such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it may also contribute to anxiety, too. 

Seattle was also one of the first areas in the county to say hello to the COVID-19 pandemic. And we’re still recovering from the stress of the past two years.  

We’re wading into anecdotal territory, now, but there are things about this area that locals know we get stressed about: Our ridiculously high caffeine intake; the infamous Seattle Freeze; heavy traffic and those weird triangular intersections; and our demanding jobs.  

How to deal with top Seattle stressors 

Different types of stress may have different fixes: There isn’t necessarily a one-size-fits-all approach. Here are some strategies to keep in mind when dealing with some of the top stressors us Seattleites face. 

Treat overcaffeination 

If we were to describe Seattleite’s coffee habits in one phrase, it would probably be: Death before decaf. Many people in the city love our coffee, and not just a single cup a day. 

Drinking too much caffeine can feel uncomfortable: think jitters, sweating, increased heart rate and even nausea, all of which can make someone feel pretty anxious. And in some people, excess caffeine can trigger an irregular heartbeat, regardless of whether or not they have a known arrhythmia or other heart condition. 

“Jitteriness feels like anxiety to someone who is primed that way. When people feel their heart thumping hard, this tends to increase their anxiety and can contribute to a feeling of panic, says Dr. Arun Sridhar, a cardiac electrophysiologist and specialist in heart rhythm disorders at UW Medicine Heart Institute. 

To deal with overcaffeination symptoms, Sridhar recommends drinking noncaffeinated beverages that will replenish your electrolytes, drinking a lot of water and trying to find ways to calm yourself down, such as taking a walk or trying some deep breathing. 

The obvious way to avoid overcaffeination is to not drink so much caffeine, whether it’s in your coffee or energy drinks or something else, but that doesn’t mean you need to cut it out completely. Try switching to decaf after your first cup next time. (We promise it won’t kill you.) 

Manage rent and finance anxieties 

Dr. Ramanpreet Toor, a psychiatrist at UW Medicine, recommends taking advantage of any helpful resources you have access to. Maybe your bank or workplace offer webinars, articles or other tips on how to buy a home or save more so you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck. There are plenty of resources online that you can seek out.  

When you’re amid any stress including financial stress, practicing mindfulness can help you be in the present moment, cognitively function better and help with problem-solving or being more creative, Toor says. Focus on what you can control — like your response to stress — instead of what you can’t.  

“Practicing mindfulness daily helps to stay grounded, present in the moment and helps with anxiety. It is important to practice daily and not only during an anxiety attack,” she says. 

Why? Learning how to be mindful when you’re actively upset may feel too difficult, but if you learn and practice when you’re calm, you’ll be better able to apply those skills during high-stress times. 

“There are various breathing techniques and apps which can help. One of my favorite grounding techniques is the 54321: look for 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 you can smell and 1 good thing about yourself,” Toor says. 

Shine some light on SAD 

With Seattle’s northern latitude, short winter days and gray, gloomy weather, people who live here are more at risk for developing SAD.  

While SAD is a form of depression, which is different from anxiety, it’s important to note that the two often coexist: If you have one, you’re more likely to have the other.  

If you’re feeling some symptoms of depression — such as losing interest in activities you used to enjoy, sleeping more or less, having low energy, or isolating from others — and it’s making you anxious or otherwise interfering with your life, there are some ways to help yourself feel better. 

Consider trying a wake-up light or a therapeutic light specifically designed to ease SAD symptoms. Focus on getting enough and good quality sleep (which means avoiding using your phone before bed). Boost your mood by moving your body during the day in ways you enjoy and connect with people you care about. 

Banish the Seattle Freeze 

It’s often said that Seattle is a city of introverts. Many of us Seattleites are private people who are polite but aren’t exactly easy to get to know, since we prefer to stay home rather than go out and socialize — a phenomenon that has been dubbed the Seattle Freeze.  

This can make it hard to meet new people and form friendships, especially for recent Seattle transplants. But just because so many of us are introverted doesn’t mean social bonds are any less important to our well-being (and for staving off anxiety).  

“No matter how you slice it, you find our social relationships influence how long we live,” says Sarah Campbell, assistant professor in the UW School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. 

Making new friends is hard, but it’s not hopeless. Campell recommends acknowledging any anxiety or discomfort you have, then making the first move anyway. Start by reaching out to people you already know and would like to know better, such as a co-worker or friendly neighbor, and be patient and continue to make an effort. 

Cruise past traffic anxiety 

Anyone who has driven in Seattle knows it isn’t the most calming experience. Sure, we’re better than L.A. or New York, but we also have some unique factors affecting us, like the weird one-way streets and triangle-shaped intersections.   

Pre-pandemic, Seattleites faced some of the longest commutes in the country. While traffic has lessened somewhat because of so many people working from home, it could increase again once more people return to their office buildings.  

When dealing with traffic and city driving, it’s important to be mindful behind the wheel. If you notice yourself getting tense, take a few deep breaths and let go of what you can’t control. Maybe play some upbeat or calming music.  

Toor is a fan of box breathing, which is a mindful breathing approach that works like this:  1. Breathe in, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs. 2. Hold your breath for four seconds. 3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for four seconds. 4. Hold your breath for four seconds. 5. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel re-centered. 

Build work-life balance 

Seattle is full of tech companies and other workplaces where it may be difficult to prioritize a healthy work-life balance. But it’s an important thing for everyone to do, especially those who are feeling extra anxious. Working too much only leads to burnout, after all.  

Whether you’re already feeling burnt out or simply know you need to make a change, there are a few proven strategies you can try.  

First, advocate for yourself. Do you need a more flexible schedule? Ask if it’s possible. Is your paid time off piling up? Take those vacation days you earned. Get stressed out by after-hours emails? Set some boundaries.  

For burnout, anxiety and other mental health struggles, it’s also important to keep your mind and body as healthy as possible. This means prioritizing your sleep, eating food that gives you energy and makes you feel good, and adding some movement into your daily routine.  

That way, when anxiety does strike, you’ll have a solid foundation from which to support yourself as you work to calm down.  

The bottom line 

Seattle may be the most anxious city, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. There are ways to manage anxiety if you’re struggling, and you’re definitely not alone.  

It’s also important to remember how amazing living in Seattle and the surrounding area can be. Nature is everywhere around us, from Mt. Rainier to the Olympic mountains, Elliott Bay to Lake Washington, plus all of our pine forested parks and hiking areas.  

We have a robust arts community, plus great coffee shops and breweries and restaurants and bookstores. When you’re struggling (and even when you’re not) it’s important to remind yourself of all the things we Seattleites have to be grateful for about where we live.