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Is caffeine contributing to your anxiety?

This page created 13th June 2014

By Jess (ADAVIC Volunteer)


As a university student I loved nothing more than relaxing with friends over a hot cup of coffee in between class.  As the stress of university life and the frequency of procrastination increased, so did my caffeine intake. It was my stress relief, reward when I had done a substantial bit of homework (or wanted to avoid doing homework), and the essential element that got me through those all night assignment and exam cramming sessions. Six cups of coffee was a regular occurrence.
 
It wasn’t until a close family member inquired into biofeedback that I started to examine a possible link between my caffeine intake and my stress levels. Could my excessive caffeine consumption be exacerbating my already heightened stress response and therefore be a contributing factor to my steadily increasing experience of anxiety?

Research has suggested that this could be the case. One study specifically evaluated the effects of caffeine on those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The results of this study suggested that not only did caffeine contribute to symptoms of anxiety but also those that experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder may be more sensitive to the effects of caffeine than others (Bruce, Scott, Shine, & Lader, 1992).
 
Caffeine is used worldwide and is predominately consumed via tea and coffee, however there are other foods and drink containing high levels of caffeine. Examples of these include energy drinks, chocolate, and soft drinks. The popular use of this drug is propelled by the presumption that caffeine is helpful and for the most part harmless; a presumption that I too maintained.
 
Caffeine is a psychostimulant, therefore it stimulates various physiological and behavioural responses, such as increased wakefulness (Rogers, Heatherley, Mullings, & Smith, 2012). For some this could be the desired outcome. Along with side effects of caffeine consumption that could be seen as positive there are also outcomes that may be less desired. These may include increased blood pressure, tremors such as unstable hands, and insomnia. The precise effects that caffeine has on each individual person cannot be assumed. This is due to the personal tolerance which an individual may innately be predisposed to, or which can be developed over time and repeated exposure (hence why some people can have a “relaxing” cup of coffee before bed and sleep like a baby!). Yet, as suggested prior, those that experience anxiety may find that they are more sensitive to the stimulating effects of caffeine, thus caffeine intake may more likely be contributing to the severity of experience of anxiety and it may take less caffeine to provoke stimulation (Rogers, Heatherley, Mullings, & Smith, 2012).
 
After researching the hypothesised effects of caffeine I decided to do an experiment on myself. I slowly limited my caffeine intake by, for the most part, swapping my warm cup of coffee with a cup of black tea (note that black tea also contains caffeine). Soon after I decided to experiment with herbal teas and decaffeinated coffee.

I am pleased to say that it has been a few months now and I have kicked my caffeine addiction. In saying that, I will have a cheeky coffee every now and again, but for the most part when I feel like a warm cup of something to help me through my long lonesome nights of assignments and exam cramming herbal tea or a decaffeinated coffee does the trick! To my surprise I did not experience any ghastly withdrawal effects either, nor did I exactly miss the overdose of caffeine which my body had long grown a tolerance to.
 
My decreased level of caffeine consumption has not only improved the state of my breath, teeth, and skin but has also decreased the jittery feelings of anxiety that I use to experience, which were increasing rapidly. Yes, I still get the feelings of stress and anxiety when I feel overwhelmed but these feelings are a lot more manageable and my productivity level has increased immensely.

Swapping my six cups of coffee a day with two or three cups of decaffeinated coffee and herbal teas which do not contain caffeine has definitely been one of my greatest achievements!


References

  • Rogers, P. J., Heatherley, S. V., Mullings, E. L., & Smith, J. E. (2012). Faster but not smarter: effects of caffeine and caffeine withdrawal on alertness and performance. Psychpharmacology, 22, 229-240.
  • Bruce, M., Scott, N., Shine, P., & Lader, M. (1992). Anxiogenic effects of caffeine in patients with anxiety disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 49, 867-869.   

 

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