Anxiety is a serious issue. Anxiety is essentially long term stress – and stress is damaging to the mind and body. Stress causes DNA damage – quite literally damage to each and every one of your cells, and anxiety can potentially put you at risk for cancers, organ failure, memory loss, and more.
In the short term, anxiety is damaging as well. Regular, persistent anxiety causes fatigue and negative thinking that takes away from any of life's joys. It may also cause physical symptoms like nausea, indigestion, and muscle acne that can make it difficult to remain active.
Overall, when you experience anxiety regularly, it is something that needs to be treated. The only way to treat it is to make sure you're not causing it, and one common item that people claim causes anxiety is coffee.
Is Coffee Triggering Anxiety?
Coffee can lead to a feeling of being jittery and an increased heart rate. On its own, it does not create anxiety, but if you already have anxiety it can make symptoms worse. Take our free 7 minute anxiety test to score your anxiety symptoms, compare it to others, and see if there are ways to control it.
The Causes of Anxiety and Diet
In general, anxiety can have any number of different causes. Upbringing certainly plays a role, as the behavioral interactions you've experienced throughout your life may all contribute to long term stress. We know that genetics can lead to anxiety, as can illnesses.
Diet may also lead to anxiety. Some foods can actually help fight anxiety, providing you with nutrients that act as sedatives and give your body more rest. Other foods can exacerbate anxiety – either through causing anxiety itself or contributing to anxiety symptoms.
_Note:_ If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend you take my free 7 minute anxiety test to learn more about your symptoms and what may be causing them.
Ask most anxiety experts, and they'll tell you that one food that consistently contributes to anxiety is coffee. As of this writing, a Google Search for "Foods that Cause Anxiety" and "Coffee" yields nearly 300,000 results. These experts recommend that those experiencing anxiety refrain from coffee in order to control anxiety symptoms.
The origin of this is not that clear.
It almost seems as though people assume coffee causes anxiety because many believe it causes jittery behaviors. Certainly excess caffeine (greater than the recommend daily limit of 300mg of caffeine per day) can cause some problems, such as upset stomach, muscle tremors, and some of the other problems that people associate with caffeine.
But in moderation, caffeine is fairly mild, and those with a tolerance often experience few symptoms at all. In fact, if we look into the research, it's possible that caffeine may actually be _good_ for anxiety.
Potential Benefits of Coffee/Caffeine on Anxiety
It's important to note that we're talking about those with generalized anxiety or daily anxiety – not necessarily those with other anxiety disorders (more on that later).
We're also talking about only one to four cups of coffee or tea per day, with no added ingredients. Many people add sugars, creamers, and other ingredients to their caffeinated drinks, and these may cause their own issues. We're focusing on less than 300 milligrams of caffeine in black coffee or green tea.
With those parameters in place, there is reason to believe that caffeine has no negative effect on anxiety, and may actually be beneficial for those that have mild to moderate general anxiousness.
Several studies examined the relationship between caffeine and anxiety. They found that there were interesting changes to the body that occurred when people with anxiety consumed caffeine. For example, those with anxiety may not need as much caffeine to experience the same benefits, but the research also showed that anxiety scores were no different between those that consumed caffeine and those that did not.
Few studies appear to confirm the theory that caffeine has a negative effect on anxiety.
What several studies have found is the opposite – that caffeine may actually help those with anxiety, stress, and possibly even mild depression. A study in Brazil found that many of those with moderate caffeine consumption experienced less depressive symptoms and fewer cognitive failures, indicating that those that consumed caffeine actually felt better, not worse. In the same study, only a "rare, high dose" of caffeine caused what the authors of the study termed "anxiety" – a level of caffeine that few habitual coffee drinkers consume.
An interesting summary of the possible benefits of caffeine consumption was published by the New York Times. They showed several of the known benefits of caffeine, including:
- An Effect on Mood Those that consumed caffeine tended to have an "improved sense of wellbeing." It appears that caffeine itself has the natural ability to, in layman terms, "lift the spirit." Studies have shown that caffeine may reduce mild depression and calm the mind. Many people also feel better about themselves, with a greater level of happiness that would, in theory, reduce the amount of anxiety they experience.
- Increased Energy Mental and physical energy are an important part of living with anxiety. While anxiety could be described as pent up energy, the reality is that anxiety tends to cause fatigue and general indifference to life events. Exercising, maintaining an active social life, and completing tasks all require energy, and for many, caffeine provides that energy.
- Cognitive Benefits Studies have also shown that caffeine has a beneficial effect on memory and cognition. Intelligent decision making and comfort with one's own memory are valuable tools for dealing with life's stresses, and so caffeine could conceivably provide some level of additional support for dealing with the day.
- Routines Routines are a secondary way that caffeine provides a benefit. Routines are a natural form of comfort. The more you get into a routine, the more comfortable you feel with yourself and your surroundings. Those that drink coffee regularly often start to need it as a way of avoiding withdrawal symptoms (and simply as an enjoyable drink to start the day). This cause a routine, like a regular coffee shop or brewing at home every morning, and that routine can start each day more comfortably.
There are also other potential benefits, such as drinking coffee socially (which provides social support – an important tool for combatting anxiety), the general benefits of enjoying a not-unhealthy beverage, and more.
Each of these represents a potential reason that caffeine may benefit those living with anxiety. Yet even if one doesn't believe in these benefits, the reality is that there is very little, if any, evidence that those living with general anxiety are negatively affected by caffeine.
Caffeine and Panic Attacks
As mentioned earlier, however, there are other anxiety issues beyond simply generalized anxiety. It is possible that caffeine and coffee do provide some type of anxiety-related consequence for those that suffer from panic attacks.
Are You Having Panic Attacks?
Panic attacks are an anxiety disorder, but they feel far different and often feel like a physical problem. To find out if you may be suffering from anxiety attacks, take my
Panic attacks, or panic disorder, fall under the category of anxiety disorders, and indeed many of those living with panic attacks also have generalized anxiety. Panic attacks are instances of intense fear usually characterized by their physical symptoms, rather than normal everyday worries.
Panic attacks are immensely physical events, and many people that have panic attacks are hospitalized because they think they're suffering from a heart attack. Those that suffer from panic attacks are or become overly sensitive to their body's physical sensations. At any moment, they may feel something in their body that automatically triggers a rush of anxiety that cascades into a full blown panic attack, along with a number of physical symptoms that cause considerable health fears.
Panic attacks are often misunderstood, because they are nearly impossible to control without treatment. These health triggers can be as simple as not feeling as though the person got a deep breath, or getting some slight discomfort in their chest. Once they notice this feeling, those with panic disorder are flooded with uncontrollable anxiety leading to a debilitating panic attack.
Panic attacks appear to be the one area that caffeine negatively affects. The reason for this has to do with how attuned the person is to the reactions caused by caffeine:
- Slight increase in heart rate.
- Excess energy.
- Occasional stomach discomfort or bloating.
These things are relatively harmless, and often go unnoticed by those without panic disorder. But those with panic attacks can't help but notice them, because they are hypersensitive to these sensations.
After drinking coffee and experiencing just the slightest increase in heart rate, those with panic attacks immediately feel it much more pronounced than before, and a panic attack may be triggered. Simply the rush of caffeine itself may lead to some type of sensation that triggers an attack.
Therefore, it is possible to say that caffeine affects anxiety, but only as it relates to panic attacks, which are a very specific type of anxiety problem.
Other Issues That Could Link Caffeine and Anxiety
It's possible that one of the reasons that a link is considered present is because anxiety is a subjective experience. Most people can feel caffeine when it gets into their system. Those that feel it and are asked about their anxiety levels may simply be attributing their extra energy to anxiety retroactively. Anxiety is a subjective experience, and generally subjective experiences make for inconsistent anecdotal evidence.
Furthermore, it's possible that studies about the effects of caffeine do not take into account tolerance. It's possible (although once again, the research doesn't support this claim) that those that have not had caffeine in the past react strongly to the drug more than those that are tolerant. This could also create a feeling of energy that is attributed to anxiety, but is generally nothing more than caffeine related energy.
Finally, we mentioned earlier that what you add to your caffeinated beverages could affect anxiety as well. Refined sugars can be harmful to the body, so sodas and heavily sugared caffeinated drinks may not be ideal.
All of these could potentially link caffeine and anxiety, as well as coffee and anxiety, but none of them are evidence that coffee causes generalized anxiety – only that there are reasons that others may subjectively report anxiety while on caffeine.
Choosing Whether or Not to Drink Coffee
Those that live with anxiety deal with a considerable amount of stress every day. That stress can have a powerful effect on day to day living, and those that suffer from that level of anxiety should consider everything they can to improve their quality of life.
If this means you want to try cutting out caffeine from your diet, then you should cut caffeine from your diet. The potential anxiety benefits of caffeine are mild at best, and people react differently to different dietary changes, so it may be worthwhile quitting caffeine and seeing if your anxiety feels like it is decreasing.
Nevertheless, research has yet to show a strong link between coffee and anxiety, and other research seems to show the opposite effect – that not only does caffeine not effect anxiety, it could benefit it as well. As long as you're limiting your caffeine consumption to healthy levels and not suffering from panic attacks, there's little reason to believe that you need to stop drinking that next cup of coffee.
If you are suffering from anxiety, I strongly recommend you take my 7 minute anxiety test.
At Last, A Reason Why Stress Causes DNA Damage. DukeHealth.org. Duke Medicine, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012.
Myung Ae Lee, Oliver G. Cameron, John F. Greden, Anxiety and caffeine consumption in people with anxiety disorders, Psychiatry Research, Volume 15, Issue 3, July 1985, Pages 211-217, ISSN 0165-1781, 10.1016/0165-1781(85)90078-2.
Lara DR. Caffeine, mental health, and psychiatric disorders. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S239-48. Review.
Brody, J. (n.d.). Personal Health - Sorting Out Coffee’s Contradictions - NYTimes.com. The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia.
Charney DS, Heninger GR, Jatlow PI. Increased Anxiogenic Effects of Caffeine in Panic Disorders. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 1985;42(3):233-243. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.1985.01790260027003.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.