Caffeine and Anxiety: The Missing Link?

A look at how caffeine and anxiety might be linked, and why I gave up caffeine completely...

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Caffeine and Anxiety - The Missing Link? Mental Health
Photo by Javier Molina, Unsplash.
As you know, I've suffered over the years with anxiety and, at times, depression. The depression, I admit, I got over - I looked after myself, saw a psychotherapist a few times, dealt with some things, took up yoga and I'm pretty much fine nowadays. But the anxiety. It still gets me. Some days. 

Just like with my psoriasis, there was a turning point for me, in the way I treated my anxiety. 

It was a normal Friday afternoon, and I was catching up with Sherlock, before the school run. I'd made myself a cup of coffee, curled up on the sofa and settled down to some 'me time.' 

I do that now on Friday afternoons. 

15 minutes after finishing the cup of creamy coffee, I suddenly found my heart was racing, even though I was sitting on the sofa. I felt uneasy in my stomach, and jittery. My mind started to race. I didn't feel well. I had a sudden feeling of dread and anxiety which swelled up inside me. After one cup of instant coffee? Seriously?

Strange, I thought. 

And then I cast my mind back to other times when I'd been sitting still after a cup of coffee or tea and the same thing had happened. Could it be the caffeine? 

I decided to try giving up caffeine completely, to see if it happened again. 

It never did. 

I started drinking (instant) coffee at about the age of 14. When I was 17, I asked a friend how they'd managed to stay up all night revising for their A-Levels and be back at college bright and early the next day, and she told me she used Pro Plus. After that, I basically Pro Plussed my way through college and university. My 20s were spent meeting work colleagues each lunchtime for double-shot coffees at the local Costa. I'd chug down huge, great big tub-like mugs of cappuccino and latte, with an energy drink to perk me up before I set off home at 5.30pm. It's no wonder that my nights were spent staring at the ceiling until the early hours, trying to go to sleep.

This is why I think that I totally burned myself out, caffeine wise, when I was younger.

Nowadays, I don't tolerate caffeine at all. And I only know this after giving it up. 

My heart rate pumps along at a healthy 60-odd beats a minute, less if I'm really relaxed. Before, it would never get below 70. Giving it up, I had headaches, yes - but they went after three days. On the third day, much like when I gave up sugar, I suddenly felt lifted and at complete ease. Things still stress me out - that's life, after all - but my reaction is much calmer and more rational. I'm less moody and I have more patience with things. I'm not kidding - I'm like a different person after giving up caffeine. And for anyone thinking that they're ok because they only drink tea - I usually drank just tea, and got the jitters from that, too.

And it's not just me. 

Studies have shown an effect on caffeine and anxiety - we all have different thresholds, which is why you might order a cheeky espresso and be fine, while I'll be jittery after a cup of Lady Grey. Caffeine can also upset the body's ability to deal with sugar. The caffeine impairs your ability to control your sugar levels, and that sugary croissant alongside your brew will just add to the problem. One study showed that caffeine exacerbated anxiety related symptoms in patients with panic disorders, and advised those with anxiety to cut or limit their intake. 

I still love the smell of coffee, as someone opens the coffee shop door. That warm, roasty flavour wafting out, on a rainy day. The best smell in the world. 

It's just that drinking it doesn't work for me, any more. 

Personally speaking, if everything's ticking along fine - if I'm eating plenty of veggies, staying away from sugar, getting lots of sunlight and sleep and doing some exercise - I don't get anxiety. Even when something goes wrong. I can handle it. Caffeine has the ability, from the studies above, to react with all of those things - it makes me crave sweet things, it messes up blood sugar control and it interferes with my sleep - and so I'm not surprised that science has shown that there's a link to that and our mental states. Plus, the symptoms that come with the heart-pounding jitters of drinking caffeine are remarkably similar to a panic attack. At least they are for me. 

I'm not saying caffeine is bad for you - or even that it's bad for everyone. Most people can tolerate it fine, and there are definitely health benefits to drinking coffee and tea. But our biochemistry is all slightly different and if you find that a cup of tea or coffee makes your anxiety feel worse, then listen to your body. I feel much better without it. I just sip on a chicory coffee or a fruity water, instead. 

If we meet up at a coffee shop though, I might just have to sniff your espresso. You know, for old time's sake. 

Looking for some caffeine free ideas? Have a look at these... 

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Virgin Raspberry Mojito

Blackberry and Lime Iced Camomile Tea

Beautiful Creamy Chicory Coffee

Paleo Black Forest Smoothie