Caffeine and Anxiety: Is It Worth Quitting Coffee Over?
We know caffeine can cause anxiety — and make existing anxiety worse — but is the connection between caffeine and anxiety worth quitting coffee over? Is it worth saying goodbye to the flavor, ritual, and pick-me-up we love so much? I would say absolutely not if any one of the following were true.
It’s totally not worth quitting coffee…
- If I could stop at just one cup
- If I could be satisfied with decaf
- If my anxiety weren’t already so bad
Unfortunately, none of those things are true. After learning more about caffeine and anxiety, I quit coffee and am feeling better for it.
I’m a little less anxious. I don’t waste energy obsessing over how long I should wait until my next cup. And I no longer feel guilty negating all of the other anxiety-reducing things I do with three to four cups of anxiety-inducing coffee every day.
How caffeine causes anxiety
As clinical psychologist Dr. Edmund J. Bourne explains it in The Anxiety & Phobia Workbook, the connection between caffeine and anxiety works like this:
Caffeine “produces the very same physiological arousal response that is triggered when you are subjected to stress – increased sympathetic nervous system activity and a release of adrenaline. In short, too much caffeine can keep you in a chronically tense, aroused condition, leaving you more vulnerable to generalized anxiety disorder, as well as panic attacks. Caffeine further contributes to stress by causing a depletion of vitamin B (thiamine), which is one of the so-called antistress vitamins.”1
Caffeine-induced anxiety disorder
Yes, it’s a thing. Caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is one of many substance-induced anxiety disorders.
“This category is used when generalized anxiety or panic attacks are determined to be the direct physiological effect of a substance, whether a drug of abuse, a medication, or toxin exposure,” writes Dr. Bourne. “The anxiety may be a result either of exposure to the substance or of withdrawal from it.”2
What caffeine does to the body
- Increases heart rate
- Temporarily speeds up metabolism
- Triggers release of adrenaline, which is what causes our “fight or flight” response
- Suppresses adenosine, a chemical that slows down nerve cells and causes drowsiness
- Can inhibit absorption of calcium and iron
Side effects of caffeine
- Stomach irritation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased urination
- Increase heart rate and respiration
WebMD also cites several existing conditions that caffeine could make worse, including anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, bleeding disorders, heart conditions, diabetes, diarrhea, epilepsy, glaucoma, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, and osteoporosis.
I never noticed coffee causing any of these side effects, which is not to say I didn’t have them. Evidently, it’s common to attribute the side effects of caffeine to other things. For instance, I drink a cup of coffee in the morning, start working, then I feel anxious. I blame the work, not the coffee, completely ignoring the obvious connection between caffeine and anxiety.
I do recall one notable exception, though, when there was no doubt of the effect caffeine was having on my body.
The last time I returned to coffee, it had been a year or two since I’d quit. The first day back, I felt fine. But on the second day, my first cup of coffee sent me into a full-blown panic attack. My heart was racing, I was shaky, and I felt this uncomfortable sense of detachment from things.
In hindsight, I realize my body was trying to warn me: This may not be a good idea. Of course, I didn’t listen and instead resolved to push through. I had decided to drink coffee again so that’s what I was going to do. I continued drinking it, built up my tolerance, and never had that kind of extreme reaction again.
How much caffeine is in what?
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has a comprehensive list of caffeine content of specific brands of coffee, tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, food, and over-the-counter medications.
The Mayo Clinic provides a more general breakdown of caffeine content in coffee drinks, teas, sodas, and energy drinks. Caffeine content in coffee looks like this:
- 8-oz brewed coffee: 95-165 mg
- 8-oz brewed decaf coffee: 2-5 mg
- 1-oz espresso: 47-64
- 1-oz decaf espresso: 0
- 8-oz instant: 63
- 8-oz instant decaf: 2
- 8-oz latte or mocha: 63-126
By comparison, an 8-oz cup of brewed black tea contains 25-48 mg of caffeine, an 8-oz cup of brewed green tea has 25-29 mg, an 8-oz cola has 24-46 mg, and an 8-oz energy drink has 27-164 mg.
How much caffeine is okay?
Caffeine sensitivity varies so much from one person to the next that it is impossible to say. Yes, the Mayo Clinic says most adults can safely have 400 mg of caffeine per day. But when it comes to caffeine and anxiety, if you are prone to anxiety — or have an anxiety disorder — Dr. Bourne says you probably don’t want to consume more than 100 mg a day (if any).3
Women and caffeine
As long you are keeping your caffeine consumption low, many studies show there is no link between caffeine and trouble conceiving, miscarriage, birth defects, premature birth, or low birth rate.
However, there are some studies that do show a possible link between high caffeine consumption and miscarriage. For this reason, the March of Dimes recommends pregnant women, and those trying, limit caffeine consumption to 200 mg per day (or about two cups of coffee).
If you consume enough of it (more than 744 mg per day), caffeine can increase calcium and magnesium loss through the urine. It’s been suggested this can cause osteoporosis, but studies show it does not, in fact, cause bone loss. That said, make sure you are getting enough calcium, which not only helps prevent osteoporosis, but is also a natural tranquilizer. (And don’t forget the magnesium, which you need for proper calcium absorption.)
Again, it varies per person, as well as how much you were consuming and how you quit (tapering off vs. quitting cold turkey). But according to WebMD and the University of Maryland Medical Center, caffeine withdrawal symptoms can include:
- Trouble concentrating
- Depressed mood
I’ve quit coffee a handful of times over the years, and always cold turkey.
The first day I always felt fine, probably because I still had caffeine in my system.
The second day, I could always count on three withdrawal symptoms – headache, fatigue, and trouble concentrating.
By the third day, I usually felt pretty much back to normal.
The last time I quit coffee, though, the side effects were much more intense. On my second day, nausea was thrown into the mix, bad enough to keep me bedridden most of the night. I felt better the third day, but continued to get headaches (unusual for me) over the course of a couple of weeks.
That’s about par for the course, as Smithsonian Magazine reports that withdrawal symptoms typically start within 24 hours and last 7-12 days.
How to quit
1) Quit cold turkey. Though this is the route I’ve always taken, it’s not the one I’d recommend for the withdrawal reasons I just explained. I only go the cold turkey route because once I decide I need to quit something, I have to quit it then and there or I won’t quit at all.
2) Taper down. Dr. Bourne recommends doing so over a long period of time, reducing your coffee consumption by one cup every month.4
3) Use substitutions. Though I quit coffee cold turkey, I did substitute it with decaffeinated herbal teas so that I could still hold on to the ritual. You can do the same when you’re tapering off, substituting one cup of coffee with a decaffeinated alternative.
Health benefits of coffee
Despite the connection between caffeine and anxiety (as well as numerous other side effects), the health benefits of coffee should not be ignored. Most of these aren’t proven, but the connection is strong enough that they’re worth noting.
WebMD cites an impressive list of health benefits. Research suggests coffee drinkers are less likely to have Type 2 diabetes, liver disease, Parkinson’s disease, and dementia. Coffee may also counter risk factors for certain cancers, heart rhythm problems, and strokes.
But what WebMD also does is note that this research has not proven cause and effect.
Drinking coffee may not be the reason for the lessened likelihood of these diseases and conditions in those who have participated in these studies:
“Researchers don’t ask people to drink or skip coffee for the sake of science. Instead, they ask them about their coffee habits. Those studies can’t show cause and effect. It’s possible that coffee drinkers have other advantages, such as better diets, more exercise, or protective genes.”
(To learn more about the connection between coffee and disease, check out the disease-by-disease coffee report card from Harvard Medical School.)
What we do know is that coffee contains antioxidants, which help fight disease-causing free radicals.
Smart ways to keep drinking coffee
1) Limit your coffee drinking to 1 or 2 cups a day.
2) If you have trouble limiting how much coffee you drink, try substituting decaf every other cup. Yes, it contains caffeine, but practically nothing compared to a regular cup.
3) Limit your coffee drinking to the morning hours.
4) Offset potential impact on nutrient absorption with a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.
Caffeine and anxiety: What about you?
Do you drink coffee? Do you notice if it (or any other caffeinated drink) causes you anxiety? If so, has the connection between caffeine and anxiety made you think about quitting, or have you already? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.