What Science Has to Say About the Link Between Caffeine and Anxiety

POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim
POPSUGAR Photography | Sheila Gim

Anxious? Drink coffee? The doctors have spoken — it may be time to ditch the coffee habit. We interviewed a range of specialists, from psychotherapists to cardiologists, and the results were clear as ever: caffeine can be a major factor when it comes to stress.

"Caffeine overload mimics anxiety. If you're anxious, it will worsen your symptoms," said Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist at NYU Langone Medical Center and the medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center For Women's Health.

Thinking about getting a second opinion on that? Don't worry, we got four.

How does caffeine affect someone with anxiety or high stress levels?

"With people prone to mood disorders, caffeine has a stronger effect." — Dr. Mirwat Sami, MD.

  • It ups your stress hormones. Remember cortisol and adrenaline, those stress hormones you're trying to mitigate? Yeah . . . caffeine stimulates production of both of those in the body. Your body responds with an increased heart rate (hypertension) and rapid breathing. This response can not only trigger anxiety but also sustain it, said Jodi Aman, LCSW-R psychotherapist.
  • It depletes your anxiety-fighting minerals. Caffeine also depletes magnesium, the antianxiety mineral, leaving you with very few natural ways of coping with stress.

Can you still have coffee?

Maybe. For most patients, in moderation.

Dr. Goldberg, for one, allows her patients a "moderate intake of caffeine, in any product."

So what does moderation mean? Make sure you monitor your levels. Coffee and espresso will put you in the 77 mg to 135 mg range, and tea will typically have between 15 mg and 70 mg. One cup of coffee each day seemed to get the green light from most doctors we spoke with. The moderation is not only to keep you from a caffeine-induced panic attack but also to keep the dependence on caffeine low, as it can be incredibly addictive, said Dr. Sami.

Factors that may curb the effects of caffeine include drinking water, early morning consumption (this can limit side effects), temperature (hot drinks can be calming), and stress- and depression-fighting supplements like L-Theanine, magnesium, and vitamin B complex.

When is it time to say goodbye?

If you're dealing with severe, clinical anxiety, the time is nigh to cut the cord with coffee. If you've yet to be diagnosed, there are still ways to tell if your caffeine levels are too high for you. Dr. Goldberg suggests monitoring symptoms and being mindful of "rapid, skipped, or fluttering heartbeats, trembling and stomach upset, and sleep disruption."

You can also take notes and think of it like an A-B test. Reduce the amount of coffee, soda, or tea you're drinking, and observe if a smaller amount still triggers anxiety and/or heightens your sensitivity, says Dr. David A. Greuner, MD, FACS, FICS. If the pros of having a mental stimulant aren't outweighing the cons, you should think about eliminating caffeine from your diet.

But don't think of this as a forever breakup, Aman says. "If you are trying to get your anxiety to go away, it helps to stay away from caffeine entirely. That doesn't mean forever, just until it's no longer a problem."

Thankfully, there are energy-boosting alternatives to hold you over or become a substitute; ginseng, yerba mate, and green tea are all milder stimulants, with low caffeine (but enough to help out). If you need more natural energy-boosters, try a quick workout in the morning before work or any of these healthy substitutes.