The relationship between coffee and anxiety varies not only from person to person but from year to year and even situation to situation. Even if you love your morning pick-me-up, it may be wreaking havoc on your nervous system and making you a more anxious person. I learned about my personal relationship with coffee and anxiety the hard way.
About two years ago, I noticed a tightness in my chest some mornings. When I talked about even the simplest things at work, my heart would sometimes start beating very quickly, and I’d talk faster and then need to catch my breath.
I tried meditating, less screen time and other things happy people never forget to do, but the “off days” kept happening. I had tiny moments of panic in normal situations. It was quick breathing and sweaty palms as a response to totally mundane events.
How I Found a Connection Between Coffee and Anxiety
I decided to track the “off days” with a journal and found that they actually occurred on days when I was happiest upon waking up—days when I treated myself on the way to work by getting a giant sugary lattes to enjoy throughout the day. At first, I thought I was having a reaction to the celebratory attitude. Was spending $6 on a drink causing me secret panic?! Should I make my own Starbucks copycat recipes and save the cash? But one day, after testing my theory and going for the less-expensive matcha latte, I had no anxiety at all.
That’s when it hit me—it wasn’t the price of the cup, it was what was in it!
“The natural effects of caffeine stimulate a host of sensations, such as your heart beating faster, your body heating up, your breathing rate increasing—all things that mimic anxiety,” says Susan Bowling, PsyD, a psychologist at the Women’s Health Center at the Cleveland Clinic. “Psychologically, it’s difficult for your mind to recognize that this is not anxiety because it feels the same.”
My body was taking caffeine cues and turning them into stress signals. This was confounding because I used to take shots of straight espresso to pull all-nighters in college or drink multiple lattes to get through long days at work. But caffeine sensitivity can change with age and the situation you’re drinking it in.
This Is What I Drink Instead
Since becoming aware of the coffee and anxiety link, I drink almost exclusively green tea, and only after I’ve eaten something. (Did you know tea has all sorts of health benefits?) If I really need a caffeine kick, I’ll opt for matcha, a powdered green tea and superfood with almost as much caffeine as coffee, but in a latte form with plenty of milk.
Not only have my mini-panic moments disappeared, but I’ve noticed my stress levels feel lower, overall. It turns out my caffeine sensitivity may have been increasing for years without being dramatic enough to take notice.
Test your own caffeine tolerance by switching from coffee to tea for your fix. (Buy some matcha and see for yourself!) Or if you’re dependent on your java to get through the day try switching from high-caffeine options like cold brew and straight drip to options cut with milk. You might be surprised at your more balanced approach to work and stress.
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