As caffeine stimulates the nervous system, it can create bodily sensations similar to stress, fear, and panic. Such sensations can signal to the mind that something is wrong, resulting in added layers of cognitive stress such as nervousness, worry, and anxiety. Long-term and excessive consumption can cause experiences often diagnosed as anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and insomnia. Reducing or eliminating caffeine in the body can resolve issues often presumed to be psychological in nature.
A daily ritual is a powerful thing. Especially when that daily ritual happens every morning…and midday…and afternoon. The average Can-American coffee drinker consumes three cups per day. The buzz is good. It saves us from getting fired the morning after a night out. Or after a night of the baby crying. Or after an all-nighter of Game of Thrones.
I don’t say this to be cruel. I’m simply speaking from science: If you’re suffering from anxiety, the first thing you need to do is to drop the coffee.
A Jolt to the Nervous System
Caffeine stimulates, amps up, activates your nervous system. “Jolt” was an appropriate name for one of the first canned caffeines. The jolt to the wiring of the body is often what we feel we need during a sluggish, sleepy, foggy moment. Considering the effect on our body’s electrical network it’s no wonder there’s another aptly named caffeine beverage: “Volt.”
A nudge from a friend can feel like encouragement, a gentle push forward into optimum performance. But a jolt has a different tone. A jolt is violent, jarring, unsettling, and over time, anxiety inducing. We can’t expect our nervous system to always know which is which – whether we are being gently coaxed with a chemical cocktail into clarity and confidence, or being jaggedly jostled into a survival level jousting match with life’s latest challenges.
With caffeine in the system, there is more electricity running through the nerves. Muscles are tensing in response. The heart rate increases. These are physiological effects typically only experienced during moments of danger – familiar feelings related to our primal fight or flight response.
Anxiety is a Physical Sensation
Every emotional state is felt physically in the body, and we all use language to describe this. The hot-headedness of anger. The crushing heaviness of grief. The expanding heart of love. And for anxiety, tightness in the chest and fluttering in the gut.
Remove the physical sensations, and we aren’t really emotional beings. Our minds determine what emotions we are having by noticing what feelings are present in our body. It’s no coincidence that the numbing drugs of alcohol and pain killers are so addictive – its because through the numbing of the body, they numb our emotions.
When a substance like caffeine creates a body sensation that feels like stress, the subconscious mind perceives that sensation as there being an actual threat present. The fear center in the brain is activated, and our senses and thoughts begin to filter for threat, danger, disorder. We have a feeling that something is wrong. And that feeling begins to translate into thoughts. We start to worry. We become paranoid. And over time, we work ourselves up into a new normal state of anxiety.
Several months, or sometimes even years into our coffee addiction, we may find ourselves struggling with what we perceive to be chronic anxiety and often insomnia as well. We can begin to think this is the “new normal me”. Often, it’s been so long since we jumped on the Juan Valdez speed-wagon that we forgot what life was like before when we used to get through life strictly on our own steam. Without realizing that an over-active nervous system is causing our anxiety and insomnia, we may attribute our symptoms to getting older, changes in life circumstances, or even changes in our inherent ability to cope with life’s challenges. This questioning our resilience can take a toll on our self-esteem as we begin to doubt our ability to handle life.
Caffeine Tolerance and Diminished Benefits
Giving up caffeine is clearly the first line approach if you suspect it may negatively influencing your life. But there’s no need to worry that by giving up coffee you are signing up for a life of groggy mornings and sleepy afternoons. Chances are, if you’re this far deep into the daily grind you are no longer receiving any benefit from your coffee.
As with many drugs, our bodies adapt to caffeine over time. Perhaps we started drinking coffee on a morning after a short night’s sleep. It got us through the day. All hail coffee! Savior of the morningtime! But by bedtime, we have so much caffeine coursing through our veins that we can’t sleep. Oops, insomnia. Hard to get up in the morning. More coffee! Problem solved — err, habit formed.
In no time at all, we need coffee to be functional. Much like Pavlov’s dog whose salivary glands learned that the natural behavior of salivating in response to being presented with food could be superseded by the new stimuli of a ringing bell, our bodies learn that we’ll be getting a dose of caffeine shortly after the morning alarm, so no need to generate our natural adrenaline to wake us up. Prior to the morning fix, we are zombies, the walking dead. Marching single file toward the one-touch caffeine machine on our kitchen counter, or driving with one eye open to the nearest Starbuck’s or Timmie’s drive thru. We need caffeine just to get back to the “normal” energy levels we used to experience without the drug but with a decent night’s sleep. We’ve become dependent. Addicts. We are not higher performers, quicker thinkers, more efficient problem-solvers. Despite our intimate relationship with coffee, we have no advantage over mere mortals.
So, with no tangible benefit of caffeinating, there’s no reason to continue outsourcing your adrenaline to Colombia, Kenya, or Sumatra. Except of course for the pleasure of coffee, which we’ll discuss a bit later.
Wean off to Avoid Withdrawal
Quitting cold turkey is not recommended. As with any addictive substance to which your body has adjusted, caffeine has withdrawal symptoms. And just because coffee is street-legal that doesn’t mean the symptoms are anything to take lightly. Dropping the bean too fast can result in fatigue, drowsiness, headaches, depression, irritability, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, nausea, vomiting and muscle pain or stiffness.
But these effects can be avoided through a gradual weaning process. Nutritionists have recommended “the 25% solution,” wherein users reduce the amount of caffeine by 25 percent each week. If your standard is four cups of coffee per day, start your weaning process by drinking three cups per day for the first week. Let your body adjust. Then drop down to two cups the next week, and one cup the week after. One cup a day doesn’t cause problems for most people, but unless your anxiety and insomnia have vaporized completely, you will probably want to eliminate caffeine altogether and proceed to week four where you are down to no coffee at all.
If giving up that one last cup a day is difficult, there are additional strategies to consider:
- Order or pour smaller sizes of coffee, continuing to wean
- Transition to decaffeinated coffee
- Transition to other less caffeinated or non-caffeinated beverages such as teas (oolong is particularly useful) or coffee susbsitutes, such as Inka, Teecino, or Caf-Lib
Honoring the Ritual
Caffeine aside, our enjoyment of coffee boils down to how we experience the beverage with our five senses: how it feels to prepare it, hold it and consume it, how it looks in our mug, how it smells, and how it tastes. And for some of us, coffee is secondary in our sensory experience to all that sweet and creamy milk and sugar we add to it.
There’s also often a comfort in the process of making the beverage, or in ordering it from our favorite coffee shop. We can retain the ritual, but substitute that one small problematic detail: coffee. Paying attention to the comfort we find in a ritual allows us to preserve many aspects of that ritual and make the transition easier. Even when we consider the fairly unique flavor of coffee that we may be resistant to abandoning, we can see that much of its flavor profile is in its “burntness”. All of the coffee substitutes suggested above are blends of roasted grains that recreate much of that burnt bitterness that we have come to love in coffee.
When Anxiety Remains
If you have removed caffeine from your system and you are still experiencing anxiety, there are non-pharmaceutical options to pursue. Anxiety has been correlated with increased inflammation in the body, and so an anti-inflammatory diet may be explored. If you still find that biology does not appear to be the cause of your anxiety, then moving into exploring and changing habitual negative thinking and healing past traumas can be effectively achieved using hypnotherapy.
Andrew Gentile (BSc Biochemistry, MSc Environmental Management), is a Certified Medical Hypnotherapist in Toronto, and is author of the self-help book HeartBreak Therapy: Repair Manual for a Broken Heart. He sees clients locally in person, and globally by phone and Skype. His website, www.TorontoHypnotherapy.ca, compiles medical research on the efficacy of medical hypnosis and is a resource to health practitioners worldwide.