Diet is one of the least understood causes of anxiety and panic. Scientists now believe that diet actually plays very little role in anxiety - although it can have an effect on anxiety triggers and possibly making some of the symptoms of anxiety worse.
Caffeine, however, is often blamed for the development of anxiety and panic. Is that fair? Can caffeine really cause panic attacks?
Your Panic Attacks Can Be Controlled
Changing your diet is not going to stop all of your panic attacks. Find out how to live without anxiety by taking my free 7 minute anxiety test now.
The Link Between Caffeine and Anxiety
Read any website with tips on how to control anxiety and you'll find countless people saying that removing caffeine will help you see a difference. It's not true. It's based on false logic that doesn't seem to hold up in the science. If you want to cure your anxiety, you should take my anxiety test.
That said, those with panic attacks are in a bit of a different boat than those with other forms of anxiety. There seems to be no evidence that caffeine causes anxiety unless you take it in extremely large quantities (over 300mg per day) or you're not getting enough sleep. But those with panic attacks may still be affected by caffeine because of the way the effects of caffeine can trigger an attack.
Hypersensitivity and Caffeine
Once again, caffeine does not cause anxiety. Note that some refined sugars and energy drinks may cause anxiety, but that is for different reasons - not necessarily due to the caffeine itself.
But when you have panic attacks, you're more likely to struggle with a problem known as hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivity is when your mind immediately notices any change in your body. Any time you focus on a change in the way you feel, you put yourself at risk for triggering panic attacks, because people tend to have panic attacks as a result of experiencing different physical sensations.
- Increased Heart Rate Caffeine does increase your heart rate, at least a little bit. Those without anxiety rarely notice. Those with panic attacks tend to notice it and then their mind immediately rushes with anxiety as it fears something may be wrong with your heart or that a panic attack is coming. This reaction then triggers the attack.
- Stomach Discomfort Similarly, caffeine doesn't always sit well in the stomach and chest. There are occasionally aches, pains, and other negative feelings that come from consuming caffeine, especially if you're someone whose digestive system doesn't love it. That discomfort can also trigger panic attacks for similar reasons.
- Changes in Mental Sharpness Caffeine increases mental sharpness, which is actually a good thing. But still, when that sharpness increases, your mind may translate that change as something going on with your brain. This may also trigger the flood of anxiety that leads to panic attacks.
Much of this becomes automatic. The person rarely feels their heartbeat increase and then thinks to themselves "hm I must be suffering from a heart condition." Usually the anxiety comes automatically, almost like it's trained to come, and then the negative thoughts start. That's one of the reasons that it is so hard to control.
Furthermore, when you're groggy it's also harder to be hypersensitive. Without caffeine your mind may not be able to easily focus, which means it will have a harder time noticing physiological changes. But cutting out caffeine may not make that big a difference in your hypersensitivity because eventually your caffeine addiction will go away and you won't be groggy as often.
Regardless, for these reasons, those that drink caffeine and have panic attacks may be at greater risk for panic. It's not necessarily the caffeine though that causes this. Rather, it's the way panic attacks are triggered by changes in the way you feel, and caffeine tends to bring on some extra changes.
Will Cutting Out Caffeine Reduce Anxiety?
Everyone is different. Cutting out caffeine can certainly be something you try to reduce anxiety and panic attacks. Make sure that you are at least cutting out caffeinated sodas and energy drinks, since these often have other ingredients that could create anxiety on their own. Whether or not you cut out coffee is up to you. You may see a difference, you may not.
But you certainly won't "Cure" your anxiety by cutting out caffeine, or your panic. That's why you should strongly consider taking my free 7 minute anxiety test now. It's the best way to effectively reduce your anxiety and prevent it from coming back.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.