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Is Caffeine Addicts Anonymous for You?

And how addictive is caffeine compared to other drugs, anyway?

Our society has an obsession with pigeonholing addictions based on their assumed severity. Cocaine? “One line, and you’re a lifer.” Booze? “It’s kinda bad, sure, but don’t you dare tell Nance she needs to pass up on another Tequila Tuesday.” Caffeine? “We the people of the United States pledge allegiance to Starbucks and embrace mocha frappes as the backbone of social well-being.”

Caffeine, it seems, drags along the bottom of our made-up addiction hierarchy. We joke about drinking coffee all day long. We sip from mugs that ironically say, “I’m not addicted to coffee, we’re just in a committed relationship.” We even wear “Caffeine Addict” T-shirts, as if we’re proud of our obsession with java.

So, the notion of a Caffeine Addicts Anonymous group — “a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others recover from caffeine addiction” — may seem, well, a bit over-the-top.

However, a person can become dependent on caffeine, and that person will likely experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms for as many as nine days when they try to leave it behind. After drinking up to eight coffees a day, one forum commenter writes, “I quit because I started suffering from occasional anxiety attacks and related symptoms, and caffeine seemed to exacerbate it.” Another says, “When I quit, I went cold turkey. The first week was terrible — massive headaches, constant cravings, and I was so, so tired.”

Still, because substances like amphetamines, cocaine and nicotine are believed to arouse the area of the brain linked to reward, motivation and addiction to a higher degree than caffeine does — and because caffeine withdrawals rarely require professional intervention or medication — many addiction professionals are hesitant to label caffeine as truly addictive, instead saying it can cause a lesser dependence. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “While caffeine produces a small rise in dopamine, it does not cause the large surge that unbalances the reward circuits in the brain and is necessary for an addiction. So even though the word ‘addiction’ is often used casually, caffeine is not addictive (scientifically speaking).”

To put it another way, psychiatrist Sally Satel, who specializes in addiction, says, “I don’t believe that caffeine addiction is a terribly important public health problem. That said, it’s true that abrupt discontinuation of daily consumption of caffeine can cause some sleep problems and rebound jitteriness in otherwise healthy people. There will typically be a small subset of people who are especially sensitive to these effects.”

But even then, unlike more intense addictions, Satel says most people should have no problem kicking caffeine on their own, in part because caffeine addictions tend to be more ritualistic than chemical in nature. “The general ‘treatment’ is a very gradual reduction in caffeine intake,” she explains. “The self-weaning might take several weeks, depending upon the person. A person could also replace the lowered intake with decaf. When people habituate to a substance, it’s often the non-chemical aspects that act as reinforcers, so simply the small amount of coffee and the act of drinking can dull withdrawal symptoms.”

Now, none of this means that groups like Caffeine Addicts Anonymous can’t be useful, because they can be. “If people find it helpful, fine,” Satel says. “As a psychiatrist, I’d wonder if socializing is what they were missing in their lives far more than caffeine, but that doesn’t detract from the value they find in the meetings.”

Plus, even if your “addiction” isn’t all that chemically dependent — or all that high on society’s perceived addiction seriousness scale — remember, no matter how you tackle it, nobody can shame you for trying to be better.