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The Dangers of Caffeine for Anxiety Sufferers

Over forty research studies have shown that excessive caffeine can be harmful to your health.

Here are just a few of the effects that caffeine can cause in the general population:

  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Restlessness
  • Nervousness
  • Insomnia
  • Flushed face
  • Twitching or trembling
  • Distracted thoughts and speech
  • Physical agitation
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness
  • Diarrhea
  • Mood swings

Do any of these symptoms sound familiar?

That's right. They are "fight or flight" reactions designed to protect you from harm. Excessive amounts of caffeine can trigger the body's fight or flight response even though no real danger exists.

This overactive fight or flight response can contribute to anxiety.

Caffeine Provokes Anxiety, Insomnia, and Panic Attacks

Caffeine holds a special danger for anxiety sufferers, and particularly for people with panic disorder.

Studies on caffeine and anxiety sufferers have shown that caffeine can:

  • Increased anxiety in anxiety sufferers.
  • Cause insomnia (lack of sleep can promote panic attacks in people that are susceptible to panic attacks).
  • Provoke panic attacks in people that have panic disorder.

Caffeine One of Several Anxiety Triggers

Anxiety disorders are caused by several triggers, such as stress overload, poor diet, environmental factors, genetics, and negative thought patterns working together over time.

Keep in mind that caffeine is not the only thing responsible for causing panic attacks. It is only one of many triggers.

Don't expect your panic attacks or anxiety to go away completely simply by eliminating caffeine. Many other triggers can also contribute to panic attacks, which is why it's important to live, think, and act in ways that create an anxiety-free lifestyle.

How caffeine affects you on a particular occasion depends on how many other potential triggers are present and how intense they are.

For example, two cups of caffeinated coffee may not increase your anxiety level when you're sleeping enough, eating well, and relaxing regularly.

However, the same two cups of coffee might provoke a panic attack on a day when you slept five hours the night before, skipped breakfast, and experience a great deal of stress at work.

Consider Eliminating Caffeine Completely

Because caffeine has been shown to provoke panic attacks in people with panic disorder, many specialists suggest that people with panic disorder eliminate caffeine from their diets entirely.

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In many of these studies, the people that did not suffer from panic disorder did not experience a panic attack after consuming large amounts of caffeine. Only the ones suffering from panic disorder did.

And it took less caffeine to affect the anxiety sufferers than the control group.

The choice is up to you. Some people find that the improved feelings resulting from eliminating caffeine far outweigh any benefit it provides.

If you do quit caffeine, make sure to taper off slowly and under the advice of a physician to avoid withdrawal symptoms, such as headache and fatigue.

Effect of Caffeine Varies by Individual

Caffeine does not affect all people the same way. It's important to "know thyself" and tune in to the effect caffeine has on YOU.

The way to do this is to slowly decrease or eliminate the caffeine in your diet and note if there's any difference in how you feel and act.

Find a level of caffeine that works for you without causing increased anxiety. (Do this under a doctor's supervision.) Because caffeine's effects vary by individual, only you can decide what's too much for you.

Sticking with Caffeine? Make Moderation Your Motto

For those of you that decide to keep caffeine in your diet, make moderation your new motto. Here are several tips to help you reduce your caffeine intake and enjoy it more safely.

Reduce Portions

Do you really need three cups of coffee to enjoy the flavor? Try one instead. Do you really need a full-sized candy bar at break? Eat one bite-sized candy bar instead.

Keep Other Anxiety Triggers in Check

Look at the BIG picture when you're considering how much caffeine to have on a given day. Before grabbing that extra caffeinated beverage, consider how many of these other anxiety triggers are present first and decrease your caffeine intake accordingly:

  • Excessive stress
  • Physical symptoms (overactive fight or flight response)
  • Less than eight hours of sleep
  • Lack of regular aerobic exercise (thirty minutes or more at least three times a week)
  • Ignoring anxiety instead of addressing it immediately
  • Shallow chest breathing
  • Ignoring or "stuffing" undesirable feelings
  • Alcohol
  • Nicotine
  • Negative, obsessive, or "dead-end" thought patterns
  • Taking medications that, contain or interact with, caffeine

Eat a Protein with the Caffeine

Excessive caffeine can drop blood sugar levels and create a "roller coaster" effect of physical symptoms. Eat a piece of cheese, nuts, chicken, or other lean unprocessed meat with your caffeine to help minimize adverse effects.

Read the Medication Label

Caffeine is present in many over-the-counter medications, such as pain relievers, medicines for migraine headaches, and antihistamines for colds and allergies. Many prescription medications also contain caffeine.

Ask your doctor about alternative products that do not contain caffeine. If changing medications is not an option, make a special effort to reduce the caffeine you consume in other items while you're taking the medication.

Deanne Repich is the Founder of the National Institute of Anxiety and Stress, Inc. An anxiety educator, teacher, and former anxiety sufferer, she created the Conquer Your Anxiety Success Program, a simple, action-oriented "how-to" course that has helped thousands across the globe conquer their anxiety.