At its core, anxiety is psychological. But in our day-to-day lives, much of our experience with anxiety is physical. It can be less of an emotion than an overall bodily feeling of tension or unease, marked by symptoms like a racing heart or shaky hands.
It’s not a coincidence, then, that consuming a stimulant like caffeine can produce feelings of anxiety. For many people, in fact, the side effects of caffeine and anxiety are the same.
Does this mean, then, that cutting coffee out of our lives could treat our anxiety?
“Cutting caffeine can help treat anxiety,” says Cathy Allsman, a psychologist in Miami. “Early in this shutdown, I was working with a young woman to manage her anxiety. She was doing a good job of employing various techniques I taught her but stopping the 12 espressos a day helped a lot.” By simulating the physical experience of anxiety, it’s only natural that caffeine can trick our brain into thinking we’re actually anxious. “Both caffeine and anxiety produce rapid heartbeat and adrenaline flooding your system,” Allsman explain.
But not consuming caffeine might only help mitigate the side effects, rather than the cause itself. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless or doesn’t benefit people at all — quitting coffee or other forms of caffeine is ultimately a harmless means of managing the condition without medication. That said, it won’t be a magic cure for everyone. Just as benzodiazepines only work by slowing the nervous system so that the body can’t panic, cutting caffeine only limits the body from experiencing the panic-mimicking physical feelings they could produce if consumed.
In both cases, though, the panic itself could be managed through techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which would teach someone how to handle their anxiety from an emotional level rather than physical.
Plus, for some people, caffeine is good for their mental health. According to Psychology Today, coffee consumption has been found to reduce the risk of depression by helping introduce dopamine into the prefrontal cortex, which helps regulate mood. Not to mention, that jittery feeling from caffeine can produce excitement and euphoria. “Anxiety and excitement are physiologically similar, so caffeine might make someone feel good,” says Allsman. Coffee might help you be more productive as well, which can lessen specific anxieties surrounding work or school.
Generally, consuming too much caffeine will almost definitely exacerbate anxiety. Most people are fine with a cup or two a day, but plenty of others can feel sensitive to even that limited amount. So it’s really a matter of preference and personal comfort. Feel jittery in a bad way after a quad latte? Maybe don’t drink a quad latte again tomorrow.