Several million Americans are affected by a form of anxiety, ranging from an acute panic attack to several years of struggle through an anxiety disorder. Other Americans experience symptoms of anxiety in times of severe stress, beyond normal levels of fear or apprehension. And since awareness for anxiety as a disorder has exploded, so has the prevalence of the condition in the general population. Whether or not it’s completely confirmed, many studies point towards one major factor in the increase of anxiety: the modern lifestyle of an American adolescent or adult. From a young age, we’re put through exceeding amounts of pressure to succeed in an academic fight against our peers, for an uncertain future on a volatile job market where safety and security no longer exist. Then, amidst stagnant wages and rising costs, we’re meant to fend off fears of environmental crises, acute bankruptcy, countless health hazards, and the dangers of a sedentary living. Finally, we’re faced with the fact that most people in their early 20s today most likely won’t be able to afford a retirement.
It’s no wonder that people are becoming increasingly anxious and mentally sick, especially in younger generations. It doesn’t help that the post-war generation lived a life of excessive affluence, and that the cost of that is weighing down on the children of today. But that only paints a very grim picture. Other realities are that we have far fewer violent crimes today than in the past, and that general drug use – including smoking, drinking, marijuana, and most hard drugs – has decreased significantly over time. Teens and adolescents today are getting married later than ever, having sex later than ever, and suffer fewer work-related deaths and injuries. There’s a lot to be anxious about, but a lot to be happy about, as well. So why the negative perception? Are other factors to blame, as well? Can people better control their anxieties than they might think? Could the answer be in their coffee mug? Maybe. But likely not in the way you might expect. Coffee does have an effect on anxiety levels, but it can be both a negative and a positive effect. It all depends on how much coffee you consume, and how often.
Caffeine and Anxiety
Caffeine is a psychoactive drug, and it is, in fact, the most common psychoactive chemical consumed to date. We drink more tea (which has caffeine) and coffee than just about every other beverage on the planet except potable water. More than alcohol, caffeine has a profound effect on humanity and has been part of our daily diet for thousands of years. Coffee is much younger and much stronger than tea when it comes to caffeine, and it probably originated sometime around the 10th century in what is now known as modern-day Yemen.
Although it is prepared and consumed in countless different ways throughout the world, Americans consume by far the most coffee out of any other country, and it’s become a daily staple for most people in the United States. It’s only natural, then, that science begs the question of how caffeine usage affects the developed and developing brain.
The answer is that caffeine is a stimulant, and its effects on the brain mimic those of other known stimulants, but to a much lesser degree. Stimulants or “uppers” are drugs that boost a person’s focus and motivation. They have modest pain-relieving properties, can help reduce inflammation, and are used in the treatment of anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder. Illegal stimulants like cocaine are known for a powerful high that gives people a massive burst of energy. Amphetamines, which are used medically and also abused for academic or athletic purposes, boost mental and physical performance. Caffeine has a similar effect, affecting the neurotransmission of norepinephrine, dopamine, glutamine, and acetylcholine. What this does is increase alertness, reduce boredom, and boost mood. Yet its primary function is to reduce drowsiness.
Caffeine blocks the adenosine receptors of the brain, which are continuously reacting to a slow buildup of adenosine throughout an individual’s waking hours. The longer we’re awake, the more adenosine piles up in the brain, signaling us to go lie down and sleep for a while. This is why caffeine can have a profound effect on a person’s sleep, especially with a high dosage or bad timing (drinking caffeine an hour before bed, for example.
Adenosine also continues to build up even though it doesn’t interact with the receptors in the brain, thus leading to a caffeine crash after copious amounts of coffee without a break. Once it wears off and gets metabolized, all the adenosine floods the brain’s cells and signals you to go take a nap right freaking now.
But what does all this have to do with anxiety? Well, understanding the effects of caffeine gives you a better idea of what it can and can’t do – and while it does have an effect on anxiety, it’s not a profound one. Caffeine can both help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, and it can help exacerbate them. There are several factors at play here:
- The level of caffeine in the coffee, and your tolerance to the drug.
- The quality of your sleep, as well as the consistency of your sleeping schedule.
- If your anxiety is related to neurotransmission problems, caffeine might have an adverse effect.
- Caffeine can interfere with other medications, which is why you should talk to your doctor about that.
Anxiety sucks, and most people who drink coffee really like it. That alone has an effect – if the aroma and experience of a warm cup of coffee is something positive for you, that in itself can provide you with some comfort and help you feel a little calmer. But, as mentioned, there are other things at play.
The Pros and Cons
Caffeine can help the brain concentrate, focus, and stave off boredom and sleepiness. To many, it’s the key to a productive morning. When taken at the right dose, this can be just what people with anxiety need. Apprehension, procrastination, and overthinking are common among people with anxiety problems, and caffeine can provide a temporary boost that helps the brain settle on one target, focus on it relentlessly, and combat a short attention span.
But too much coffee can easily exacerbate your anxiety. Caffeine causes a spike in cortisol levels, cortisol being a hormone that runs through the body in times of stress to generally get you off your butt. High cortisol is bad because it basically turns you into a shaky, sweaty mess. It reduces strength and focus and causes your mind to race. When you’re jittery and feeling generally terrible after indulging in way too much coffee, your body is struggling with a lot of cortisol.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of caffeine tolerance. Like any drug, use caffeine too often and the body begins to metabolize it much faster than usual, flushing it through your system at an accelerated pace. For some, this means that over the course of days and weeks, their coffee use might go from a single cup in the morning to up to four cups throughout the day.
Consider dropping your tolerance by taking a break from coffee every now and again or tapering your coffee use before bringing it back up, going through cycles soft enough that you can continue to work normally. Too much coffee – even if you’ve built a tolerance to it – seems to point towards a shorter lifespan. The sweet spot for the health benefits of coffee lies around three cups a day, at most – for most people. Like many things, caffeine tolerance is also largely genetic. Some people can take a lot of coffee, while others get the jitters after a single shot of espresso.
Coffee, Sleep, and Mental Health
More than anything else, coffee’s most detrimental effect on the human brain is what it does to people’s sleep. Drink too much caffeine or have a cup too late in the afternoon, and you might find yourself unable to get proper shuteye until well past midnight. Pulling an all-nighter in a hectic world filled with individual deadlines and heavy pressure has become the new normal, as long as you do it every now and again.
But consistently working through the night and crashing for hours every two days or so is extremely detrimental to a person’s mental health. While the exact mechanisms of sleep deprivation are not well understood, we do know that if you don’t get proper shut-eye, your mind will suffer.
Don’t Drink Too Much
The bottom line is that there’s a point where coffee will work for you, and then there’s a point where it will work against you. Some people just shouldn’t drink coffee, and if you find that your symptoms flare up significantly whenever you drink a latte, you should look into alternatives. Modern-day decaf still tastes good if you get the right brands, and there are plenty of other hot beverages with similar effects, and much less caffeine, including matcha or loose-leafed green tea.