Alright, I’m going to assume that you hit play on this episode because you are currently a consumer of caffeine (whether it be coffee, energy drinks, tea, or soda) and you have an inkling that it may be causing some of your issues with anxiety. Or you know that it is causing some of your issues and you’re still consuming it anyway. Trust me, no judgment here! I used to drink multiple cups of black coffee a day, simply because I liked the taste. And yes, I used to drink coffee every day while struggling with panic disorder and agoraphobia. Or, you might have hit play on this episode because you’ve removed caffeine from your diet and you’re curious as to whether or not you’ll ever be able to hit up a coffee shop again. Whatever your reason is, this episode will help to clear up a whole lot of gray areas for you and help you to make the healthiest decision for you!
The Truth About Caffeine and Anxiety
So tell me, do you ever experience symptoms like palpitations, shakiness, nausea, or feeling on edge, and pretty quickly find yourself feeling anxious or on the verge of a panic attack? Yup, been there, many times! This is because when you struggle with an anxiety disorder, your brain has lots of thought patterns that have been engrained repetitively. So any slight feeling of discomfort, sensation, or symptom, often leads to anxiety and panic because you are scared of feeling anxious. And what you feel quickly leads to thoughts like… Oh no, what am I going to do? How do I make this feeling go away? What if I experience a panic attack? What if something bad happens?
So, where does caffeine fit into this equation? Well, caffeine is a stimulant. And what caffeine does, is it stimulates your nervous system. And for those who don’t struggle with anxiety, caffeine can feel like a really good boost, a boost that actually leads to sensations and symptoms that can make them feel more energized and more alert. But when you struggle with an anxiety disorder, your nervous system is likely already very stimulated. And when you feel the sensations and symptoms from caffeine, it can feel very similar to those you experience when you feel anxious or panicky, and it, unfortunately, does quickly lead to anxiety.
The reality is, caffeine itself doesn’t actually cause anxiety. Crazy, huh? For a long time, I thought that caffeine causes anxiety, especially in me. But the thing is, it doesn’t cause anxiety, it can just lead to (or increase) sensations and symptoms that mimic those of anxiety. So, it’s really the symptoms in combination with your thoughts and your fear of feeling anxious that leads to the anxiety.
So you might be thinking… Great! I don’t have to stop drinking caffeine. And this might be true for you, but, if you’re finding that you’re constantly being bombarded with sensations, symptoms, feeling anxious, or you’re often experiencing panic attacks, it’ll be helpful if you really evaluate your relationship with caffeine and make the healthiest choice for you. And it’ll likely look like taking a little break from caffeine.
Alright, before I talk through some things that will be helpful for you in evaluating your relationship with caffeine, first I want to take a quick dive into something that I’ve been seeing recently on social media and I want to give you my opinion on it. I’ve seen some posts, videos, and comments talking about drinking caffeine as exposure therapy, and honestly, I’m not entirely on board with it. The idea of this exercise is that drinking caffeine and allowing yourself to feel the discomfort of the sensations and symptoms is a way of helping your body and mind to acknowledge that the sensations and symptoms aren’t anything to be scared of. It’s about allowing yourself to feel the discomfort and teaching your brain how to work through the feelings in a healthy way so that your brain doesn’t continue to respond to the sensations and symptoms in the way that it currently is.
The biggest problem that I have with the idea of using caffeine as exposure is that it’s not always mind over matter. Oftentimes, the reason you’re experiencing the sensations and symptoms is because your nervous system is very overwhelmed. And when your nervous system is already overwhelmed and you consume caffeine, your body and mind are likely trying to tell you something. Like… Hey, we might feel better without this (or without so much of this) in our system right now.
What I’m saying is, I don’t want you to see a post or message like this and then force yourself to consume caffeine and try to be okay with experiencing the symptoms, because sometimes the symptoms are showing up for a reason and it’s not just anxiety being anxiety. Your body might be simply saying… Hey, I’d prefer you didn’t consume this. Or, hey, I’d prefer you consume a whole lot less of this right now. And overall, maybe for you, your mind and body will just do better without it. So instead of seeing your mind and body as being incapable of tolerating caffeine (aka the sensations and symptoms), it’s much more healthy to look at the signals your mind and body are sending you as helpful signals that should spark some curiosity in you.
Now, don’t get me wrong, for some, drinking caffeine can absolutely be a helpful exposure, but if you’re often bombarded with the sensations, symptoms, and panic, I don’t want you thinking that you have to just suck it up and that you should be able to handle drinking caffeine while feeling all of the discomfort and otherwise you’ve failed. I’m a huge fan of pushing yourself, but I’m always a fan of pushing yourself in healthy ways. This is why I think it’s so helpful to look at your current relationship with caffeine and really evaluate it.
Evaluating your relationship with caffeine can look like asking yourself questions like…
How much caffeine am I currently consuming?
How do I feel after consuming it?
Do I often experience more symptoms and anxiety after consuming it?
Could I consume less?
Would it be helpful for me to consume less?
Could I replace some of the caffeine that I’m consuming with other non-caffeine-related drinks?
Could I get energy from things other than caffeine?
I evaluated my relationship with caffeine, specifically with coffee, years ago and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. And well over 5 years ago, I landed on the decision to remove caffeine from my diet and I’ve never looked back. And like I said, I used to drink multiple cups of coffee a day and I absolutely loved the taste of coffee. But when I evaluated my relationship with caffeine and I answered these questions honestly, I knew that I wanted to try to make some healthy shifts. And when I did make some healthy shifts and I stuck to them, I knew that I never wanted to go back to drinking caffeine.
Let me share with you some realizations that I had along the way that will likely be helpful for you too.
I realized that I didn’t need caffeine to feel and be energized. In fact, after I eliminated caffeine from my diet (with the exception of dark chocolate), I found that I had more energy throughout the day and it was sustained energy. I no longer had major dips in energy levels and I didn’t feel super tired at different points in the day. And a huge positive for me was no longer feeling dependent on something to increase my energy levels and make me feel “better.” I was no longer dependent on caffeine to give me a boost or make me “feel good.”
I learned and truly understood that the best kind of energy doesn’t come from caffeine, but instead comes from the foods we eat, the amount of water we consume, getting adequate sleep, moving our bodies, practicing self-care and healthy habits, reducing our alcohol intake. Often the truth is that when we look to caffeine to boost our energy, it means we aren’t making healthy choices and we’re just looking for something to save us from fatigue. Do yourself a huge favor and don’t look for quick fixes. Invest in the things that give you sustained energy without coming at a price. This is a good segue into the next one…
Evaluating my relationship with caffeine led to me evaluating my relationship with food. And evaluating my relationship with food really caused me to look at everything that I put into my body and how it made me feel. And I slowly began making lots of healthy little shifts that helped to relieve symptoms and just led to me feeling better.
It improved my overall mood. I began experiencing less ups and downs, and my moods became more consistent.
Some chronic symptoms that I had experienced began to improve and slowly disappear. For me, this was huge! Because so much of my days used to revolve around the symptoms and how I felt, and trying desperately not to feel “off.”
It improved the symptoms that I experienced during my cycle. This was a big one! Many women that I chat with, including menstrual cycle experts, say that reducing or eliminating caffeine from their diet greatly improved PMS symptoms and overall helped to better balance their hormones. And we all know that we can do without the horrible PMS symptoms!
My sleep began to improve. I found that I could fall asleep quicker, wake up less throughout the night, and wake up feeling less anxious. Stimulants often disrupt sleep, and sleep is so important when you’re struggling with your mental health. Sleep is something that hugely helps to support your mind and body, and it overall helps you to have the clarity, focus, and energy you need to take healthy action and heal.
I saved a whole lot of money and time! At one point in my life, I had a budget tracker (and still should quite honestly, but anyway), and it was super eye-opening. I couldn’t believe how much money and time I spent on getting coffee. This alone was another motivator for me.
Here are some things that I want you to keep in mind when it comes to caffeine:
Eliminating or reducing the amount of caffeine you consume can be just for right now. It doesn’t have to be forever. But right now, if you’re constantly being bombarded with symptoms, it’ll likely be helpful for you to remove caffeine from your diet and give your mind and body the opportunity to function AND thrive without it. And keep in mind that you can remove or reduce the amount you consume gradually. You don’t need to completely shut yourself off from it, unless of course, you find that approach to be most helpful for you. And really give yourself time to feel the benefits of reducing or eliminating your caffeine intake. You aren’t going to reduce or eliminate your caffeine intake and magically feel great within a week, so give it time.
Starting your day off by drinking coffee and nothing else isn’t giving your body the nutrients it needs to keep your blood sugars stable. And when your blood sugars aren’t stable, you can experience symptoms like fatigue, dizziness, elevated heart rate, irritability, weakness, blurred vision, hunger, difficulty concentrating, headaches, anxiety, and the list goes on. It’s so important to eat a balanced breakfast when you wake up in the morning so that your mind and body has the nutrients it needs to support you throughout the day. So if you’re only consuming a cup of coffee in the morning as breakfast, do yourself a huge favor and simply start by adding something in addition to the cup of coffee, like a protein, fat, or carb.
Alright, so if you aren’t currently consuming caffeine and you’re wondering whether or not you can or should go back to consuming it, this is really up to you. Ask yourself some of those helpful questions. Ask yourself how you currently feel. Ask yourself how you want to feel. Will introducing caffeine back into your diet help you to feel how you want to feel? Only you can make the best decision for you because only you know how you feel. But again, if you’re constantly being bombarded with the symptoms and anxiety, I’ll always say it’s best to avoid caffeine for now.
And if you aren’t constantly being bombarded with the symptoms and anxiety, it’ll still be helpful for you to evaluate your relationship with caffeine. And if you land on continuing to consume caffeine, that’s totally okay and it’s your choice. You have to go by how you feel and how you want to feel.
And lastly, if you’re interested in using caffeine as exposure therapy, make sure to chat with a qualified professional so that you can learn and understand how to do exposures in a safe and healthy way.
I can honestly tell you that eliminating caffeine from my diet had a lot to do with anxiety in the beginning, but after seeing the benefits of not consuming caffeine over the period of several months, not adding it back into my diet had nothing to do with anxiety but instead had everything to do with my overall wellbeing and just wanting to feel good. And this is really the key, I began making decisions based on how I wanted to feel. I wanted so badly to be relieved of the symptoms. I wanted so badly to have energy. I wanted so badly to just feel good. And eliminating caffeine from my diet just made me feel good, like really good. And the result that I landed on was that caffeine will never be as important to me as feeling good is.
Okay, promise me this, if you’re going to evaluate your relationship with caffeine I want you to really invest in this journey and start tracking the changes you make and how you feel along the way. And remember to write down how you feel before you even start making changes! Because it’s so easy not to see the shifts when they’re happening because they don’t seem so big and impactful in the moment, but they add up and they can have huge impacts on your overall mental and physical health.
And I know that it may seem as though I’m super anti-caffeine, but I’m not. I’m just speaking about my experience, and eliminating caffeine from my diet was life-changing which is why I wanted to share this with you. But you aren’t me, and you have to make decisions that are best for you, and that might look different from the decisions that I make for myself and that’s completely okay. I hope that this episode has given you lots of insight, has helped you to better understand the relationship between anxiety and caffeine, and has also helped you to see how you can start making some healthy shifts.
Alright, until next time, keep taking healthy action (whether it looks like eliminating caffeine from your diet or not)!