Anxiety and Caffeine: What's the Connection?

Caffeine-induced anxiety disorder is real. Here's how to know if you have it.

If you drink caffeinated beverages regularly, you probably know too much caffeine can bring on the jitters. Sip a second espresso after dinner, and you're bound to feel a bit on edge. But could that 3-p.m. soy latte actually be messing with your mental health? If you struggle with anxiety, the answer may be yes.

"Overall, caffeine is often bad news for people with anxiety," said Susan Bowling, PsyD, a psychologist at the Women's Health Center at the Wooster Branch of Cleveland Clinic. That's because the powerful stimulant naturally found in coffee beans jump-starts anxiety by speeding up bodily functions.

Can Caffeine Cause Anxiety?

"The natural effects of caffeine stimulate a host of sensations, such as your heart beating faster, your body heating up, your breathing rate increasing—all things that mimic anxiety," Bowling told Health. "Psychologically, it's difficult for your mind to recognize that this is not anxiety because it feels the same."

According to the National Library of Medicine, common signs of caffeine-triggered anxiety include:

  • Restlessness
  • Nervousness
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia

More than 400 milligrams of caffeine per day (around four to five cups of coffee) may increase the likelihood of anxiety and panic attacks in people sensitive to it, according to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Caffeine can be so potent that "caffeine-induced anxiety disorder" is a subclass in the DSM-5 Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders, Bowling said.

Yet caffeine—the most commonly consumed psychoactive substance in the world, according to a 2013 research review in the Journal of Caffeine Research—doesn't affect us all the same way. The reason? "In part, it is the way your body is wired," said Bowling. "Some people can handle a little caffeine, and others are very sensitive to it. It's based primarily on your genetics." According to a 2019 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine may metabolize it more slowly than others, meaning that it can linger in the body for longer.

Regular caffeine consumption can set you up in a vicious cycle if you're prone to post-coffee anxious feelings. "[Perhaps] one has an anxiety attack, can't sleep at night due to the caffeine-induced anxiety, feels very low energy in the morning, then drinks coffee to wake up...and then starts the cycle over again," Bowling said.

Could your morning joe be behind your anxiety? There are ways to tell. Bowling suggested doing a mini-observational study on yourself to find out.

"Keep a journal of the impact of caffeine for a week," said Bowling. Aside from counting every cappuccino and latte you sip, track other sneaky sources of caffeine you might consume, such as decaf coffee (yep, even decaf has a little caffeine), cola, chocolate, over-the-counter pain medication, energy drinks, and infused mints or snacks. The following week, eliminate all caffeine while keeping the rest of your diet and activities the same. "For people who have anxiety, they often notice an improvement in their anxiety levels," Bowling said.

How To Cut Back on Caffeine

Some people may want to gradually reduce or limit caffeine consumption (instead of going cold turkey) to help avoid caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include headache, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. According to the Journal of Caffeine Research review, slowly cutting back on caffeine by lowering the dose can help mitigate these symptoms.

What if you don't struggle with anxiety—should you still cut back on caffeinated coffee or tea for your mental health? Not necessarily, said Lauren Slayton, RDN, nutritionist and founder of the private practice Foodtrainers in New York City. "It's a question of dosage," explained Slayton. "Coffee absolutely picks you up, and it improves cognition and athletic performance. [But] too much of most things backfires."

Summary

While there's no one-size-fits-all approach to caffeine consumption, sipping coffee in moderation may actually have health benefits, including a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. "We recommend one or two cups of coffee per day max, with no crappy sweeteners or creamers," said Slayton.

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