More than 80 percent of Americans drink coffee regularly, and many people need a couple of cups just to get through the day. Too much caffeine can make you jittery and anxious. Your heart may race. These effects are very similar to anxiety and panic. Can coffee actually cause anxiety?
The answer is: It depends. The main way coffee works has nothing to do with anxiety. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. Adenosine typically settles into these receptors throughout the day and the more adenosine binds to these receptors, the more tired you feel. You go to sleep, the adenosine gets cleared away and the process starts again the next day. If you drink coffee, the caffeine blocks those receptors and you don’t get tired–or as tired. The adenosine can’t bind until the caffeine leaves your system. Caffeine has a half life of about six hours, so that might take most of the day and into the night, depending on how much coffee you drink.
The lack of tiredness in itself doesn’t cause symptoms similar to anxiety, but the lack of sleep might. Getting too little sleep has been linked to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and impulsive behavior. If you’re drinking so much coffee that you have trouble sleeping, you might be making yourself more anxious. Since lack of quality sleep typically leads to increased coffee consumption, this might be a vicious cycle.
Coffee also increases adrenaline. This stimulates your sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” system, which is what increases your heart rate and breathing and makes you feel alert and possibly tense and jittery. This is might induce anxiety. People have this response to caffeine but they don’t necessarily attribute it to coffee. They may attribute it to going to work, or to their commute, and then they begin to have anxiety associated with those things even though they may not provoke anxiety on their own. For these people, mindfulness often helps them distinguish a physiological reaction to coffee from the events they supposed made them anxious.
If you are already prone to anxiety, coffee is probably not doing you any favors. In addition to limiting your quality sleep and ramping up your sympathetic nervous system, coffee also inhibits the function of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps calm you down. If you have an anxiety disorder, drinking a lot of coffee may make you more prone to anxiety and panic both by ramping up your “fight or flight” response and limiting the effect of the neurotransmitters that keep anxiety under control.
If you don’t have problems with anxiety, moderate coffee consumption is probably fine, but if you do have anxiety problems, you might want to consider cutting back on coffee or quitting entirely. Anxiety disorders are generally caused by thinking patterns, trauma, or genetics, so quitting coffee alone probably won’t solve the problem completely, but it might make it a little easier to control.
If you or someone you love is struggling with anxiety, Awakenings Recovery Program can help.