Caffeine and Anxiety


How quitting caffeine can affect your level of anxiety

This blog post provides information about caffeine consumption that will be helpful for those who suffer from anxiety. The short answer: yes. Caffeine can make your anxiety worse, but that does not necessarily mean you should quit. Whether quitting caffeine is right for you, as a strategy for reducing your anxiety, depends on a number of factors - including your ability to exercise and your access to psychotherapy.

Disclaimer: I am a practicing psychotherapist, and an anxiety specialist, but I am not someone whose scope of practice includes internal medicine. As such, none of what follows should be taken as medical advice. If you are interested in changing your caffeine level, starting or stopping an exercise regimen, or doing anything else related to your health, you should also discuss with your primary care physician. 

The consequences of caffeine consumption

Millions of Americans use caffeine every day both to wake up and to keep going throughout the day. Why so many people use caffeine regularly, and end up dependent on it, is no mystery. Caffeine has a number of benefits that include increasing wakefulness, decreasing feelings of fatigue, increasing focus, and improving certain aspects of cognitive performance (in both the short and long term). Perhaps more importantly, it tends to make people feel happier, because it stimulates the release of certain neurotransmitters (such as dopamine and serotonin) in the brain - and also because people take pleasure and comfort in the ritual, routine, and sensory aspects of drinking coffee, tea, or their favorite energy drink.

Despite these benefits, caffeine can pose real problems for some people. One of the main ways that caffeine can adversely affect us is in terms of anxiety. Those who suffer from anxiety should at least consider cutting down on their caffeine consumption. Below, we’ll take a look at some of the ways in which caffeine can adversely affect us. We will also take a look at some alternative approaches to reducing anxiety that do not involve cutting caffeine.

How does caffeine affect anxiety?

There is a correlation between the amount of caffeine individuals consume and the level of anxiety they experience. In general, the more caffeine a person consumes, the more likely they are to be feel jittery and nervous, end up in a state of worry, and not be able to sleep at night. Caffeine intake can also exacerbate anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and social anxiety.

Although caffeine is not the root cause of anxiety, it can make an already anxious person feel considerably more anxious. One of the ways that caffeine increases anxiety is by triggering the release of epinephrine, a stress related hormone that can intensify the brain’s normal fight-or-flight response. Caffeine can also diminish sleep quality, because it temporarily blocks adenosine transmission in parts of the brain, which in turn contributes to anxiety.

Can I get my anxiety under control without quitting caffeine?

As mentioned above, caffeine has a number of potential benefits. Consuming caffeinated beverages can also be an enjoyable part of the rhythm one’s life. This leads many people, even those with anxiety disorders, to be resistant to the idea of quitting caffeine.

Quitting caffeine is unpleasant - although some would argue that it’s relatively easy. After all, you just have to stop consuming it, learn to live with the fact that you do not get to enjoy coffee, tea, or energy drinks anymore, and then brace for the withdrawal symptoms (more on those below). Holding onto the comfort of caffeine, while overcoming your anxiety, requires more work.

Two of the best alternatives to to quitting caffeine include exercising and going to therapy. Exercise, like cutting down on caffeine, is mostly a palliative approach to treating anxiety. That is, exercise can be very helpful in managing the symptoms of anxiety, but does not target the underlying causes of anxiety. However, it’s one of the most powerful palliative approaches to treating anxiety and for many it can bring relief almost immediately. Psychotherapy, by contrast, can take longer - it doesn’t usually bring immediate relief of symptoms. However, it does offer the possibility of a deeper and more long lasting change. Together, they can be a powerful approach to leading a less anxious life.

Ultimately, both exercise and therapy require time and often also financial commitments (exercise perhaps, does not require financial commitments; although it does require a body able to engage in exercise - and having the money to pay for a gym membership and a personal trainer certainly helps). This means that unfortunately, they simply are not accessible to everyone. If you have health insurance, often your insurance will cover a portion of your psychotherapy and counseling. It may also provide discounts for gym memberships or personal training. You can also check to see if therapists or clinics in your area offer sliding scale discounts.

If you are looking for therapy for your anxiety, you should spend some time searching around for different therapists so you can find one who seems like a good fit for you. The fit between therapist and client is an important variable in the success of the therapeutic process. The approach that the therapist takes is also important. Make sure that you are comfortable with the approach they are taking to treat your anxiety. Have them explain their approach to you (they’ll often do this on their website or else you can write them an email). Once you think you’ve found a therapist that will be a good fit for you, ask them for a free consultation so that you can get a feel for them. These are also good considerations to keep in mind when searching for a gym or a personal trainer.

Is caffeine sensitivity is a real phenomenon?

Some people are much more susceptible to the effects of caffeine than others. For them, even a very small amount of caffeine can have adverse effects on how they feel and on their anxiety levels. Sometimes even drinking decaffeinated coffee is a bad idea, as it will still contain small amounts of caffeine - enough to make a big difference for someone with a pronounced sensitivity.

If you have a sensitivity to caffeine, the results of lowering your caffeine dose will be much more pronounced than it would be for a non-caffeine-sensitive person. In fact, if you have a strong sensitivity to caffeine that has gone unnoticed - changing your caffeine intake could make a world of difference.

Is caffeine safe?

For most people, yes. Up to 400 mg of caffeine is generally considered safe for healthy adults. Of course, different caffeinated beverages have different amounts of caffeine in them. A brewed cup of coffee generally has about 100 mg of caffeine, but keep in mind that the size of the “cup” is not irrelevant. 

Many individuals who consume caffeine daily will ratchet up their intake over time. After years of caffeine consumption, they may find themselves consuming espresso drinks with multiple shots in them or drinking very large cups of coffee. 

For younger people, limiting caffeine intake is generally considered a good idea. It is usually recommended that adolescents not exceed 100 mg of caffeine per day. This is the equivalent of about three cans of coke or one cup of coffee.

What should I expect if I decide to quit?

Although quitting or cutting down on caffeine can be tremendously helpful in reducing the symptoms of anxiety, this is easier said than done. Many people rely on caffeine to get them through the day. Cutting back often means feeling tired and sluggish, an inability to focus, headaches, body aches, nausea, cold sweats, and even temporary depression. These symptoms do not last forever, but they can sometimes last more than a month.

Having said that, quitting caffeine is not for the faint of heart. It takes real willpower to do this - and might even require you to use some of your vacation time (if you have any) while you are recuperating from the withdrawal symptoms.

Before deciding to change your caffeine intake, you should check in with your primary care physician. They can help you make sure that cutting back on caffeine will be safe for you and can help you determine how best to do it given your particular needs as a patient. This leads me back to my disclaimer (see the beginning of the post).

 Thanks for tuning in, Seattle. Check back in at for many more blog posts about anxiety and related issues.