At a certain point in my life, I could drink everyone I knew under the table when it came to coffee. It was practically a competition between my husband and I to see how many cups we could consume in the morning — we'd go through multiple pots, not once considering the effects it was having on us besides keeping us awake enough to handle our hectic lifestyles. That is, until I started therapy — and in the very first session, my psychiatrist recommended I stop drinking caffeine to help control my anxiety.
As anyone who frequents Starbucks knows, advice that you should quit your coffee habit isn't always welcome. My daily cup (OK, pot) of joe wasn't just a way of keeping me awake — it was a ritual I looked forward to every day and a craving I felt a constant need to satisfy. The thought of giving it up honestly scared me; what would my mornings —nay, days — be, anymore, without my coffee?
Apprehensive as I was, I soon found out. Because, though my craving for caffeine was strong, my desire to calm my growing anxiety and racing mind was stronger. So, I put my trust in a professional and weaned myself off — and, no exaggeration — changed my life in the process. Read on to find out exactly why and how I did it — and why you might consider ditching caffeine for good, too.
Why I Quit Caffeine For My Anxiety
Before I stopped drinking caffeine, I felt like I was in a constant state of chaos. Not only did I feel jittery from the moment I drank my first cup, but by the time I started my day, I couldn't focus on anything — my mind and heart were racing. I was also always in panic mode, which didn't help in my fast-paced career; every email and Slack message sent me into a spiral and I had trouble controlling my reactions to any situation that arose.
Uma Naidoo, MD, Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More explains that many of these symptoms happen because caffeine stimulates the autonomic nervous system, which can cause effects like a racing heart, panicky feelings, and increased anxiousness if you're sensitive to the substance.
That said, Dr. Naidoo also tells TZR over the phone that the substance affects everyone in a different way — so just because it increases feelings of anxiety in some people doesn't mean it has that effect on everyone.
"What research says is it's really the amount of coffee; it's when people drink it; and it's their response," she says. "Someone else may be drinking that amount and even have an espresso before bed and be completely fine. And someone else might not be able to sleep for a couple of days because they're so wired on that amount of coffee."
Because of that, she says, it's important to first take stock before cutting it out of your diet like I did. "I have individuals who have anxiety and slowly cut back on caffeine and not notice a difference," she tells me. "Everyone is unique and I don't think it's one size fits all. It's much more like, let's go through a checklist of different things I'd like for you to look at that could worsen anxiety, and caffeine is on that checklist. And that's when it comes back to paying attention to what your body is telling you."
How I Quit Caffeine For My Anxiety
Once I did decide with my psychiatrist to stop drinking caffeine, she helped me come up with a plan to taper off my consumption — because everyone who's ever skipped their morning cup knows that quitting cold turkey isn't exactly an option (or an enjoyable one, at least).
Personally, I started by ditching my afternoon latte one week, going half-calf in my morning coffee the next, and then switching over to decaf the next week once I felt adjusted and ready. By doing this, I experienced very few headaches and didn't notice any other side effects.
However, everyone is different — so as Dr. Naidoo explains, you should tailor your own plan to the amount of coffee you're drinking each day. "Usually I go by a quarter of the amount that they're drinking," she says. "As an example, say they're having two medium-sized coffees a day. They want to have a quarter less of that total quantity for the next two to three days, and so on."
And, as with when you're deciding to quit, it's important to pay attention to how you feel along the way. "If you go from 2 cups to 1.5 cups, how are you feeling the next day? Are you having any heart-racing? In which case you just have to go slower," says Dr. Naidoo. Otherwise, she says, rushing the process could make you feel more anxious, rather than less so.
The Effects Of Quitting Caffeine For Anxiety
After I successfully quit, the effects on my life were, quite honestly, astounding. The panicky feelings at work lessened; I fell asleep at night more easily; I didn't get so irritated at every noise my husband made; I could finally, truly focus. Sure, my anxiety didn't miraculously go away, but I'm now able to manage it more easily, and my constant state is calmer and less jittery than before.
To maintain this, I now drink a cup or two of decaf in the morning, which obviously gives me the same look and taste as caffeinated versions, just sans unwanted side effects. Dr. Naidoo says this is a good replacement, as are mushroom-based coffee alternatives and green tea — though just watch out for any caffeine, and always try a little bit first to see if you're sensitive to even smaller amounts.
Though I can't live without the taste of coffee every day (hence the decaf), I haven't found that I need a boost from caffeine since I quit. Sure, there are some days when I crave a shot of espresso because I'm feeling sleepy, but the actual effects of that are never what I envision, and I just end up feeling too overwhelmed to focus at all. Instead, I now just try to sleep well, exercise, and eat healthy, balanced meals throughout the day — and, still surprisingly to me, I don't miss caffeine one bit.