Why Caffeine Can Make You Anxious

Brian Byrne, a tour manager in Los Angeles, was drinking a cold beer a few years ago when he began to feel sweaty. Soon, his symptoms worsened: shallow breathing, an empty feeling in his chest, and a fast, pounding heartbeat. He came up for air. “At that moment, he had racing thoughts, he felt like he was having a heart attack,” he said.

This wasn’t the first time Byrne experienced a caffeine-induced panic attack, but it was the most intense. “Drinking that coffee was like pouring gasoline on a fire that was already burning,” he said. For a year afterward, he did not touch the material and did not have another serious episode.

Many people can relate to Mr. Byrne’s caffeine-related anxiety. While researchers can’t definitively say that caffeine causes anxiety, it is linked to an increased risk of anxiety between people with and without psychiatric diagnosis.

Caffeine is a stimulant that affects the sympathetic nervous system, the part of the body responsible for the fight or flight response. When you become active, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure increases, your muscles tense, and you may begin to sweat.

But caffeine is not the only thing that excites the nervous system. Any activity that raises adrenaline, such as exercising or riding a roller coaster, can stimulate a response.

When you exercise or take a walk, those sensations are not a surprise. But the incongruity of sitting calmly at your desk while your heart pounds, as it would if you’ve just had some caffeine, can cause some people to experience that excitement as anxiety, said Joseph Trunzo, assistant director of the School of Health. and Behavioral Sciences at Bryant University. On top of that, if you subconsciously label these symptoms as anxiety, it could reinforce the effect.

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Other factors may also come into play. Caffeine acts against the brain chemical adenosine, which slows down the heart rate and promotes drowsiness and relaxation. “When we ingest caffeine and it blocks those receptors, adenosine can’t do its job,” Dr. Trunzo said. Some scientists have speculated that blocking adenosine receptors could contribute to increased anxiety.

Caffeine can also disrupt sleep, particularly deep sleepwhich helps keep anxiety at bay, said Dr. Sheenie Ambardar, a physician specializing in adult psychiatry in Beverly Hills, California. If coffee is consumed within eight and a half hours before bedtime, caffeine can cause you to toss and turn, reducing the time you spend in deep sleep. Even slight interruptions in sleep can increase anxiety levels the next day.

Caffeine affects everyone differently. If even a small amount of caffeine makes you anxious, you may have a certain genetic variant That influences how caffeine is metabolized, said Lina Begdache, a dietitian and associate professor of health and wellness studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In this case, you will process the caffeine more slowly, so it will stay in your system longer and build up, which could cause a more pronounced effect.

There’s no way to clear caffeine through your system quickly, but you can take steps to manage anxiety if it appears. Exercise can help distract you and reduce symptoms in the short term.

You could also take a less physical approach: sit and acknowledge the sensations, rather than trying to fight them, said Avigail Lev, a licensed clinical psychologist in San Francisco. She suggests asking yourself questions like: Where in my body do I feel this most intensely? Do you have size or color? When you recognize that you can live with the feelings and that you are not in danger, they become much less debilitating.

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If you think your morning latte makes your heart race and your palms sweat, there are ways to gauge your consumption.

“I always encourage my patients to collect data,” said Dr. Ambardar, who suggested writing down how much caffeine you drink and how you feel for a month. Consider your caffeine sources and their amount. The Food and Drug Administration has cited 400 milligrams per day. (about four or five cups of coffee) as a safe amount for adults. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends limiting caffeine consumption to 200 milligrams for pregnant women.

“The best way to find out what role the substance plays in your life is to stop using it and see what happens,” Dr. Trunzo said.

A few years ago, Dr. Ambardar had a patient who suffered from severe anxiety. He had a very stressful job and drank caffeine 24 hours a day. For several weeks, he reduced his consumption and felt much more comfortable. “He was very surprised and he said that if he had known that was the cause, he would have cut it off much sooner,” he recalled.

You don’t need to stay cold turkey either. Instead, reduce slowly. If you drink four cups of coffee a day, “start small, like three and a half cups of coffee, then half a cup of decaf,” Dr. Ambardar said. After two weeks, you could reduce to three cups and continue that pattern.

When you reduce your overall anxiety, you will be less susceptible to the effects of caffeine, Dr. Begdache said. During the year that Mr. Byrne, the tour manager, left the cafe, he began therapy and daily exercise. He has now added caffeine back in moderation.

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You can also take steps to improve your energy so you rely less on caffeine, Dr. Begdache said. “It’s really a combination of factors that help you feel more energized,” he explained. Therefore, prioritize sleep and exercise, staying hydrated, and eating a healthy diet. With these changes, he may find that his latte is a pleasurable stimulus rather than a source of anxiety.

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