The Caffeine Culprit: How Coffee Might Be Amping Up Your Anxiety

You might have already heard about the connection between caffeine and anxiety, and found it to be confusing. If there’s nothing more comforting than a warm beverage in your favorite mug, how could that be possibly related to anxiety? However, for some people, there is clear evidence that points to a connection between caffeine and anxiety.

Read on to learn if this could be true for you, and if your anxiety might be exacerbated by your drink choices.

Close up of dark coffee beans

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is an emotion, but it’s also the name of a mental health condition. When someone feels anxious, they may feel listless with anticipation or consumed with their worry. Many people feel anxious while they’re waiting for a test result, while they’re waiting for a text from someone they like, or when they’re traveling to a place they haven’t been before. These feelings of anxiety are situation-appropriate, and generally aren’t cause for concern.

However, if these feelings of anxiety become frequent without a clear cause — or if that cause doesn’t warrant the magnitude of a person’s anxiety response — then this may be the mental health condition called anxiety.

Many people suffer from social anxiety, where they struggle to feel comfortable in social situations. Others have anxiety after they’ve experienced traumatic experiences, which leave them feeling unsafe or in danger. This can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or panic attacks.

Common symptoms of anxiety include restlessness, rapid breathing, nervousness, trembling, feeling weak or fatigued, or trouble concentrating. This can impact a person’s ability to eat or sleep, which can have carry-on effects on their wellbeing, and they might also suffer from gastrointestinal issues.

While anxiety looks different for each person, its hallmark is excessive worry, rumination, and fear. It can be a difficult and intense experience that can negatively impact a person’s relationships, self-esteem, and ability to work or study.

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What is caffeine?

Most people associate the word “caffeine” with coffee. However, caffeine can be found in a number of beverages and foods, like tea, soda, and chocolate.

Caffeine is a molecule that impacts brain function, and is considered safe to consume in small amounts. It’s considered a “psychoactive substance” because it changes your brain chemistry. Most people consume caffeine because it helps them wake up and feel more mentally alert, which occurs because this molecule blocks the chemical commonly associated with tiredness called adenosine.

What is the connection between caffeine and anxiety?

While there are many mental health benefits to spending a mindful moment drinking a cup of coffee or tea, there is also evidence behind the connection between caffeine and anxiety.

Caffeine can cause some of the same physical manifestations of anxiety, like jitters, an elevated heart rate, and racing thoughts. Because our minds and bodies are intertwined, sometimes our minds misread our physical sensations and interpret them as emotions — like anxiety. At its most severe, high doses of caffeine can trigger panic attacks.

Does caffeine cause anxiety?

It’s hard to say the exact root cause of anyone’s anxiety — it’s a combination of genetics, environmental factors, learned reactions, and individual tendencies. Overall, caffeine doesn’t cause anxiety, however it can contribute to one’s experience of anxiety.

If you’re not sure whether your caffeine habit is impacting your mental health, you can try gradually lowering your consumption. By lowering your caffeine intake, you can measure how much it impacts your mental health. If you find yourself feeling less anxious when you consume less coffee, then there might be a relationship between caffeine and your anxiety.

How much caffeine should I be having?

Everyone reacts to caffeine differently due to differences in metabolism. Caffeine can also feel less potent when consumed with other food or beverage, so both the method and volume of your consumption can impact how your body reacts.

Average daily intake

In general, it’s best to keep your caffeine intake to 400 mg (1), which is the equivalent of four cups of coffee per day. Anything over 1,200 mg (1) per day can be dangerous to your physical health. By spreading out your intake, your body has a chance to metabolize the molecule more gradually, which can reduce some of the more visible signs of caffeine like shakiness.

Limiting caffeine’s effects

You can avoid caffeine’s effects by limiting your daily caffeine intake to a particular time of the day, such as avoiding caffeine after lunch. This can help prevent feelings of anxiety into the evening, a time during which you might notice your feelings more without the distraction of work or school. Note that some medications can also impact your ability to metabolize caffeine; if you think that might be your experience, you can ask your doctor about potential drug interactions with caffeine.

How much caffeine is in coffee?

In one cup of coffee, there is around 100 mg of caffeine. Different types of coffee contain different levels of caffeine. An 8 oz cup of brewed or drip coffee contains more caffeine than a shot of espresso. Additionally, decaffeinated, or “decaf” coffee is not caffeine-free. A cup of decaf coffee has on average 2-15mg of caffeine.

With so many different types of tea, there are varying amounts of caffeine per cup. Black tea contains the most caffeine, with around 50 mg per cup, followed by green tea with 25 mg. This is more than a cup of soda, which typically has around 40 mg of caffeine.

How do I reduce my caffeine consumption?

If you think that your caffeine intake might be a cause behind your anxiety, it may be in your best interest to reduce your caffeine consumption. Like all regular habits, it can be difficult to quit cold turkey. The longer you expose your system to caffeine, the more your body expects it. Some people experience symptoms of withdrawal like headaches, trembling, and drowsiness when they try to stop completely.

If you’d like to stop consuming caffeine but you’re worried about withdrawal, you may benefit from gradually reducing your caffeine intake over time, rather than stopping all at once.

How do I manage caffeine withdrawal?

Should you experience physical symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, be patient with yourself — it may take a few weeks for your body to adjust to its new way of functioning, one without caffeine. Keep in mind that, ironically, caffeine withdrawal can also cause anxiety, so be sure to engage in other self-soothing techniques to manage your anxiety as you’re letting your body adjust.

What are some low caffeine alternatives?

One of the ways to reduce your caffeine consumption is to swap out your cups of coffee or tea for low caffeine alternatives. Asking for “half-caff” coffee (half a cup of full strength coffee and half a cup of decaffeinated coffee) can be a helpful alternative to a full cup of caffeinated coffee. You might also drink a different type of tea, like green tea, which contains less caffeine than coffee or black tea.

How do I manage caffeine withdrawal?

Should you experience physical symptoms of caffeine withdrawal, be patient with yourself — it may take a few weeks for your body to adjust to functioning without caffeine. Keep in mind that, ironically, caffeine withdrawal can also cause anxiety, so be sure to engage in other self-soothing techniques to manage your anxiety as you’re letting your body adjust. If your symptoms persist for a significant amount of time, you may want to consult your doctor for tips on managing the withdrawal.

How a therapist can help with managing anxiety

Many therapists specialize in helping individuals with their anxiety, especially when their anxiety begins to disrupt their activities of daily life like going to work, connecting with others, or eating and sleeping.

Therapists can help you identify the reasons behind your anxiety. Some of them might be behavioral, like your diet and caffeine intake, but others might be rooted in childhood experiences, relationships, or trauma. By talking about your life and expressing your emotions, you might connect certain memories with current feelings.

If you’re looking for a therapist who specializes in treating anxiety, you can filter the Zencare therapist directory by speciality. Look for a therapist who has experience in helping clients with their anxiety, and view their introductory video to get a sense of their personality or style. Once you find a therapist who appears to be what you’re looking for, schedule a free consultation call to set up your first appointment.