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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Vail

Caffeine Induced Anxiety Disorder

Coffee producers have done an excellent job associating their product with comfort, as reflected in advertisements of the steaming brew bathed in warm morning sunlight, clasped lovingly in the hands of some blissed-out, nearly-meditating person. But for many people, caffeine is eroding cozy, slow-morning vibes and increasing symptoms of anxiety and depression! And it does all of this in a potent chemical cocktail that can be addictive, and for those of us with a history of panic, anxiety, or PTSD - it can more profoundly exacerbate symptoms.

Ask me how I know. You see, every now and then, my caffeine intake creeps up to unhealthy levels (well over the recommended daily maximum). I consume too much caffeine during the day, then have poor sleep quality at night, followed by even more caffeine the next day to make up for fatigue. I notice my anxiety levels increase over this time - but it usually takes me weeks or months before I correlate it to the caffeine.

Confession time: its 4am Sunday morning, and I am at my desk sipping a Diet Red Bull, processing paperwork and drafting this blog post. I would rather be sleeping right now, but my cat is apparently training for the Feline Olympics. Also, my house sits right next to one of the busiest freight train lines in the United States. Normally, I would sleep through this noise, or use a handy relaxation technique to quickly resume my sleep. But over-consumption of caffeine reduces the depth of my sleep and makes it more difficult for me to fall back to sleep.

When I fall into this pattern, I don't usually notice the increase in caffeine, instead I notice an increase in social anxiety, generalized anxiety, irritability, hypervigilance, depression symptoms, and sleep disturbances. I typically implement vagal tone exercises to calm my wigged out autonomic nervous system. Caffeine increases our alertness and focus, in part, by causing our body to produce adrenaline; however, too much adrenaline activates our nervous system as if we were experiencing a threat - and HELLO ANXIETY! When I sip my latte while doing deep belly breaths, I'm rowing in opposite directions and getting nowhere fast.

When calming techniques don't work, next I'll tackle stressors - implementing another household paradigm shift informed by the latest scholarly research (my poor kids). At some point, I look around at my clean house and realize, "My anxiety seems disproportional to my life right now." Usually, this is when my highly caffeinated light bulb turns on and I finally examine my caffeine intake. In the past, this realization has ushered in a season of profound peace and improved life satisfaction for me - I actually get to have blissed-out mornings again. Thus begins my hopeful caffeine detox of 2021.

Those of us with a history of panic, or PTSD, or generalized anxiety are more susceptible to caffeine induced anxiety, and some studies have shown as little at 200mg per day can provoke anxiety symptoms and nervous system dysregulation. A single cup of coffee can contain nearly that much caffeine - its so easy (and delicious) to consume enough to trigger anxiety. The trouble is people find it much easier to believe their anxiety stems from other causes. But, if you've done your best to manage your anxiety and it keeps pestering you, try measuring your caffeine intake. Consider this an invitation to experiment on yourself. It can't hurt to see whether life with less caffeine is a less anxious one for you.

Should you decide to reduce your caffeine, it is highly recommended to taper your intake, as going "cold turkey" can cause withdrawal effects so extreme, they often sabotage the best laid plans to reduce caffeine consumption. Today, I'll be stocking up on my lower and no-caffeine beverages at the grocery store and writing my caffeine tapering plan into my planner. Please reach out and let me know if you embark on your own caffeine-reduction journey, and I'd be glad to cheer you on from here.

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