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Is Caffeine Triggering Your Anxiety?

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May 18, 2021 | Published by


Caffeine has become so ubiquitous that we forget it’s a drug. In fact, caffeine is the most widely-used drug in the world. We’re not here to turn our nose at caffeine or wag our finger at you for having a cup of coffee in your hand right now. What we are doing is outlining the link between caffeine and anxiety, and how to tell if caffeine is negatively affecting you.

First, let’s talk a bit about anxiety. Anxiety is an alarm in your body to trigger the fight or flight response. Most times, anxiety is a false alarm. During a panic attack, you may genuinely feel you are dying or the word is ending, but once the panic is over those thoughts seem less real. Caffeine triggers this same response. This is why too much caffeine can leave you feeling shaky, irritable, and on edge. If you’re already an anxious or stressed-out person, caffeine can cause these symptoms to be worse.

The link between caffeine and mental health is so strong and well-known that the guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that’s used by healthcare professionals for the diagnosis of mental disorders — the DSM-5 — lists 4 caffeine-related disorders. Those are caffeine intoxication, caffeine withdrawal, unspecified caffeine-related disorder, and other caffeine-induced disorders (anxiety, sleep).1

A study done in 2008 showed how caffeine increases alertness by blocking a brain chemical (adenosine) that make you feel sleepy, while simultaneously signaling the release of adrenalin, which is known to increase energy. In increased amounts, the effects are stronger, resulting in caffeine-induced anxiety. This is not to say caffeine is all bad and should be avoided. There are certainly some benefits to caffeine, but high doses are known to cause symptoms of anxiety. People with panic disorder and/or social anxiety disorder are more sensitive to the effects of caffeine.1

How much caffeine is too much? There’s no one answer for this question, as it largely relies on your tolerance and predisposition to anxiety. Here are some signs and symptoms that you could be getting too much caffeine2:

  • agitation
  • sleep problems
  • restlessness
  • twitching
  • dizziness
  • increased heart rate
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • changes in mood

Is caffeine causing or increasing your anxiety? It may be a good idea to assess your caffeine intake and take some steps to reduce if necessary. Here are some action tips you can take to assess and reduce your daily caffeine intake if needed.2

Learn and track – Do you know about how much caffeine you have on a daily basis? Take this time to measure the actual amount of caffeine, not just the number or cups. A triple espresso drink will have much more caffeine than 1 cup of regular coffee. Using the data below, calculate how much caffeine you have on a daily basis. Beyond this, pay attention to when you are having caffeine. Research shows that caffeine may disrupt your sleep if consumed within 6 hours before bedtime.

  • 8 ounces of decaf coffee contains 3-12 mg
  • 8 ounces of plain black coffee contains 102-200 mg
  • 8 ounces of espresso contains 240-720 mg
  • 8 ounces of black tea contains 25-110 mg
  • 8 ounces of green tea contains 30-50 mg
  • 8 ounces of yerba mate contains 65-130 mg
  • 12 ounces of soda contains 37-55 mg
  • 12 ounces of energy drinks contain 107-120 mg

Check your daily habits – You don’t have to be predisposed to certain things in order for caffeine to have an effect on your anxiety. Unsure if caffeine adds to your daily anxiety levels? Check your daily habits. If you are regularly eating unhealthy foods, not exercising, and getting poor sleep, then the effects of caffeine are likely to increase. If you’re taking care of yourself and still feel anxious, then it’s possible that caffeine is responsible. You may try cutting back on your caffeine intake to see whether that makes a difference in your anxiety.

Be mindful what you consume with caffeine – Some professionals recommend that eating protein when consuming caffeine can minimize the effects. While consuming caffeine, be sure to stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water, and also be mindful to not consume alcohol along with caffeine. Check the labels of your medication to see if they contain caffeine as well or whether they interact with caffeine. If you’re taking a stimulant as a medicine, then the effects of caffeine may also be increased.

Consider alternatives – If you count on caffeinated drinks to keep going, such as soda or energy drinks, you might want to consider alternatives with lower amounts of caffeine. Tea or decaffeinated coffee can help you reduce your daily intake without going cold turkey. If you drink soda to get through the afternoon or evening slump, consider switching to water to keep you hydrated, focused, and ready to sleep when you head to bed.

Delay that first cup – Your body is programmed to release a larger amount of cortisol in the morning to help get you going for the day. Try not to drink any coffee until you’ve been up for at least an hour. If you want to delay it even further, try going without caffeine until you really need it. You might be surprised how your body learns to manage energy levels on its own.

References:

  1. Frothingham S. Does Caffeine Cause Anxiety? Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/caffeine-and-anxiety#caffeine-and-anxiety
  2. Connolly M. Anxiety and Caffeine. Psycom. https://www.psycom.net/anxiety-and-caffeine

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