Anxiety in a Coffee Cup: Understanding the Link and Finding Balance

I love coffee. It's fair to say I am highly addicted to it. However, I am also becoming more and more aware of how the stimulant affects my state of mind in the mornings once I have had a couple of cups. As someone who has been diagnosed with anxiety issues (namely PTSD) - I have to accept and acknowledge that caffeine doesn't help that. But - what to do about it? 

Share

Firstly, let’s understand why exactly coffee might be exacerbating your anxiety. The active ingredient in coffee, caffeine, is a powerful stimulant. While it can help kick-start your morning or offer a mid-afternoon energy boost, it can also rouse your body’s natural fight-or-flight response. For someone managing anxiety, triggering this response can make symptoms worse.

The unfortunate coincidence is that many of us reach for coffee during stress, creating a vicious cycle of caffeinated, anxious turmoil. But even if you’re eager and caffeine-infused, take heart. There are steps you can take to manage this.

 Coping With Caffeine-Induced Anxiety 

Decreasing your caffeine intake may seem like the obvious solution, but doing so gradually is essential. Abruptly stopping can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and even depression. Here’s a simple plan:

  • Gradually decrease your coffee intake. Start by reducing the number of cups you drink daily by just one. Then, continue this process until you’re drinking a level of coffee that doesn’t increase your anxiety.
  • Try alternatives to coffee. Non-caffeinated beverages such as herbal teas or decaf coffee can provide the ritual of a morning cup without the anxiety-causing caffeine.
  • Maintain consistent sleep patterns. Try to go to bed and wake up simultaneously each day. The regularity can help your body adapt to less caffeine.
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can cause feelings of anxiety. Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
  • Lastly, remember everyone’s caffeine tolerance is unique. While some feel they can down a double espresso at 8 PM and sleep like a baby (but this doesn’t mean it’s good quality sleep), others feel jittery after a single cup in the morning. Listen to your body, understand its reactions, and adjust your habits accordingly. Being a coffee lover who prioritises mental health over a caffeine fix is OK. It’s commendable.

You’re not alone on this journey, so let’s continue the conversation about anxiety and caffeine, sharing experiences, potential solutions, and positive vibes. Because it’s not just about having less coffee; it’s about gaining more control over your mental health.

But I don’t want to drink less coffee!

I know, I know. While limiting your coffee intake is one strategy to curb caffeine-induced anxiety, another helpful approach involves supporting your body using specific supplements. These aids can help in lessening the effects of anxiety on your body.

The first of these supplements is magnesium. Magnesium plays a vital role in controlling your mind’s stress-response system. When you include magnesium in your daily diet, it may help calm your nerves and alleviate feelings of anxiety, potentially offsetting some of the anxious, jittery feelings often associated with coffee consumption. 

The same can be said about Vitamin B complex, which has widely been recognised for its role in maintaining a healthy nervous system. Vitamin B can be particularly beneficial if your anxiety symptoms are interconnected with feelings of fatigue or lethargy – things that might make you reach for a cup of joe. 

Omega-3 fatty acids represent another supplement that can assist in managing caffeine-induced anxiety. These fats are imperative for your brain health and function, and research has shown a correlation between a diet rich in omega-3 and a reduction in anxiety levels. Fish oil supplements are a common source of omega-3 fatty acids, although they can also be found in foods like salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds. 

L-theanine is another natural compound found in green tea that could alleviate anxiety caused by caffeine. It is known for its calming effects and has been found to work in synergy with caffeine to improve brain function without increasing anxiety.

However, all of this might help, might not – and – we are starting to take something to fix something rather than fixing the root cause, which is never ideal. If I find myself a little over the edge (though I am working on never getting there in the first place), I may take a bit of theanine to help calm me down – however – realistically, I think the pile of water I drink at the same time probably is equally to thank!

Don’t drink coffee first thing in the morning!

Say what? How is that going to work for you? Many studies show that having coffee within the first hour of waking up blunts the body’s ability to flush out the cortisol that naturally builds up overnight. This is not something we want to do. 

On his podcast, Using Caffeine to Optimise Mental & Physical Performance, Huberman discusses the benefits of consuming caffeinated beverages 90-120 minutes after you kick-start your day. This slight delay can enhance both energy levels and cognitive function. However, if morning is your preferred time for intense physical activity, you might need your caffeine dose a tad earlier. 

“Caffeine intake in the early part of your day can be hugely beneficial,” he advises. During the episode, Huberman delves into the neuroscience that supports this notion. 

The awakening effects of coffee arise from its interaction with adenosine, a molecule that curtails alertness, instigating a feeling of drowsiness. As the day progresses, our brain’s adenosine accumulates, eventually clearing out once we slip into our nightly slumber. Caffeine effectively obstructs adenosine receptors in the brain, but it is interesting to note that it doesn’t completely clear the molecule but delays its effects on fatigue. 

This brings us to why a delay in consuming caffeine could be beneficial. Upon awakening in the morning, despite possibly feeling drowsy, your adenosine levels are typically at their lowest. Therefore, it might be helpful to allow your body 1.5 to 2 hours to naturally awaken – aided by hydration, sunlight and physical movement to stimulate morning cortisol – before introducing caffeine. 

Following this strategy, once the caffeine does come into play, you’ll find yourself experiencing a more pronounced sense of alertness, courtesy of the accumulated adenosine. Moreover, your sleep-wake cycles might be reinforced, and you could limit potential energy dips at lunchtime. As a result, you may steer clear of caffeine intake too close to your bedtime, which is beneficial for your sleep patterns.